At the Empire Polo Club in Indio, six weeks before the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is set to kick off, the peaked white tents are going up across the rolling green lawns. The rainbow-tinted “Spectra” observation deck looms over the field, ready for fans from around the world to soak in the panoramas as Travis Scott, Rage Against the Machine, Frank Ocean and more than 150 acts perform.
Twenty-five miles away, Barbara Cooper and Steve Widders walked their dog on a hiking path by the Indian Canyons Golf Resort in Palm Springs, and they were growing a bit nervous — about coronavirus possibly coming to their town, and how it might affect one of the biggest weeks for tourism in their area.
“I just came from Sonoma, where they had people quarantined. People aren’t usually held in isolation for something like the flu,” said Cooper, 69, and a Palm Springs local. She worked most of her life as a registered nurse, and knows firsthand how scary such a disease can be. Coronavirus is especially dangerous for the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises older people to “stay at home as much as possible,” and in a retirement town where the median age is around 53, that’s a concern.
But Palm Springs is also a tourist town that is counting on the revenue from the hundreds of thousands of music fans that pour in from around the world for Coachella. Canceling the country’s preeminent music festival is worrisome in its own right.
“A lot of the local economy depends on tourism here, and it’ll definitely affect restaurants, spas and hotels,” Cooper said.
“I’m not really worried about getting coronavirus, because I’m not going to Coachella,” Widders, 70, said laughing. “But the economics are a big concern.”
As the industry behind the spring and summer music festival season confronts the strain of novel coronavirus causing the disease COVID-19, festival fans are bracing for just about anything. As of Saturday, there were a reported 377 cases in the U.S. and at least 60 cases in California, with 17 deaths nationwide. In just the last week, both Ultra Music Festival in Miami and Austin’s South by Southwest music, film and tech conferences have been called off over fears of the virus.
So far, Coachella, held over two weekends between April 10-19, is proceeding as scheduled. Executives from festival promoter Goldenvoice or its parent company AEG have not made any announcements regarding cancellation or postponement of the festival, which has been long sold out — 125,000 fans are expected daily for each of its two weekends.
The authority to shut the festival down rests with Riverside County Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser. Riverside County public health officials said they’re in close contact with organizers and stand ready to make decisions based on the risks to the public.
“We want to make sure we can do anything to protect the community,” said Kim Saruwatari, the director of public health for Riverside County.
South by Southwest’s cancellation by city and county officials may have set a powerful precedent in how such massive music festivals deal with COVID-19.
AEG is not likely to unilaterally cancel the festival. If it calls off Coachella simply out of its own caution, the promoter’s insurance company would not be responsible for reimbursing AEG for its losses. However, in the event of a county-, city- or state-mandated cancellation, a “force majeure” clause (“superior force,” often referred to as the “hand of God”) would be triggered, and insurance would cover AEG’s expenses and lost revenue.
One industry executive familiar with Coachella’s financials said that it nets between $75 million and $100 million in profits annually, and that an insurance payout in the event of a force majeure could total between $150 million and $200 million.
Upon cancellation, ticket buyers would receive refunds.
Not everyone is hitting the panic button yet in the industry. One national festival executive who does not work on Coachella, speaking anonymously to be able to comment freely, said that “unless we’re told by the government to shut it down, we’re still moving forward with all our festival plans for the year.”
However, if Coachella does follow the examples set by Ultra and South By Southwest, the fallout could be significant for the Greater Palm Springs area, where hospitality is a dominant industry.
Around 388,000 people live in the Coachella Valley. Recent studies from the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau peg tourism as a $7-billion industry in the area, with 1 in every 4 jobs supported by it. Even before its 2017 expansion to 125,000 daily visitors, the Coachella festival brought an estimated $704 million in economic activity to the area in 2016. The city of Indio nets over $3 million in tax revenue every year from the festival’s ticket sales alone.
At the hipster hotspots of the Coachella Valley, many fear the impact of a canceled festival.
“It would affect Palm Springs big time,” said Tony Martinez, the manager at Bootlegger Tiki, a popular bar just off the main drag of downtown Palm Springs. His bar doesn’t get too much Coachella-specific spillover, he said, so he’s not so worried about those particular two weeks. But if a potential Coachella cancellation sends notice that resorts and large events are unsafe in California, it could be a brutal season for tourism.
“People won’t travel and we rely on them coming here,” he said.
Over at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, Coachella is a peak time on its calendar. The hip boutique hotel hosts reams of Coachella-timed after-parties and pool parties, and it’s a popular spot for well-heeled guests to stay while attending the festival.
Executive chef Ysaac Rodriguez was winding down in the hotel’s Amigo Room bar on Thursday night. He said that right now, coronavirus hasn’t scared off many guests at all — “It’s still going strong,” he said, pointing to the tight crowds dancing to disco vinyl in the cavern-like pub by the pool.
But if Coachella canceled, the Ace would feel it immediately.
“We depend on it,” Rodriguez said. “If they cancel, it would be really detrimental.
“I don’t think they will cancel,” he said, striking a note of wait-and-see optimism. “But we want people to be safe too. You have to balance it.”
Just steps away from the Empire Polo Club in the Tack Room Tavern, however, Patty Copeland and Carole Taylor were each visiting family members who were longtime residents in the Coachella Valley. They were worried that the festival would bring COVID-19 too close to their kids or their elderly family members nearby.
“Hell no, I wouldn’t want them to go,” Copeland said. She came from Minnesota and has two music-fan children in their early 30s. “You can’t go overboard and buy out everything at Costco, but you want to be sensible.”
“Absolutely I wouldn’t want my daughter going,” Taylor agreed. Her 30-year-old daughter has attended three Coachella and Stagecoach country music festivals, but given that they both live in San Francisco, just miles from a cruise ship rife with infected patients docked offshore, “I don’t even want her going to work right now.”
Thirty-year-old Haley Lightcap knows that balance better than most. On Friday afternoon, she was lounging at the Saguaro Hotel in Palm Springs for a friend’s party. She’s from Austin, and for years managed the Eastside Tavern there, which was a popular rental for tech and media firms during South by Southwest (HBO once bought it out for an interactive “Westworld” experience).
She hadn’t been to Coachella before, but knows firsthand how important major music events are to cities heavily reliant on tourism, and what a major event cancellation would do to a smaller city’s economy. That’s even truer for the bartenders, hotel staff and others who have little margin of error in their budgets.
“South by Southwest covered six months of our operating expenses,” she said. “I would make six months’ pay in three weeks.”
She’s not personally worried about the virus, though. Music fans have always been coming into contact with gross stuff at festivals. She’s lived through worse.
“I got swine flu when that was going around and I was fine,” she joked.
That’s not exactly what a parent wants to hear from their kid as they embark on a festival, though. But simmering fears probably won’t keep many fans away. Barring a cancellation prompted by local government, crowds will still come streaming through the gates as they have done for decades.
But as she looked out over the expanse of lawn, where the bones of the concession areas and tent stages begin to rise, concerned mom Copeland wouldn’t want anyone she loved to take their chances.
“I know my kids are adults, but I’d say please, please don’t go,” she said, the nick of a tear in her eye. “It’ll still be there next year.”