Why the Rose Garden COVID-19 fiasco was dismal news for the return of live entertainment

At the celebratory judicial nomination event for Amy Coney Barrett, scores of maskless, prominent Americans–elected officials, high-ranking staffers, the President of the University of Notre Dame–were seen hugging, kissing and other examples of the up-close-and-personal behavior most ordinary Americans are avoiding in service of personal and community safety. It looked like no one at the Sept. 26 event in the White House Rose Garden had paid any mind whatsoever to the potential ravages of COVID-19 at a nomination celebration for a member of the United States Supreme Court.

Although it certainly fits the broader political narrative on both sides, this wasn’t entirely true.

Attendees were actually given rapid Coronavirus tests, developed by Abbott Laboratories of Lake Bluff, prior to admittance. As the Wall Street Journal and others have reported, a guest took Abbott’s so-called ID NOW test, waited around for a few minute for the result, and, in the event of their negativity, was told that they could make their way into the event without worrying about infection. In an apologetic subsequent homily, Rev. John I. Jenkins of Notre Dame said he had removed his mask (the regulations on his own campus notwithstanding) because he had been told by the White House it was safe to do so.

Wrong choice. In hindsight.

While it rarely has been entirely clear who infected whom where in this crisis, and that is true here, the evidence of multiple infections at this event suggest that the hopeful idea that rapid tests could be used as a kind of instant pandemic metal detector, a notion that has been floated well beyond the White House, is not a viable plan. The virus appears to be way too tricky a beast for that hopeful solution to our current problem.

These rapid tests have been especially beguiling to producers of indoor live entertainment.

The Rose Garden debacle last weekend did not help the crisis in that sector.

For most indoor live entertainment, social distancing is impossible. It’s not just that seats are very close together and rowdy crowds encouraged–although both of those things are typically true–it is that blocking off seats and rows so disrupts the economic models on which such events are built as to make them impossible to pull off as we have known them.

So in their search for a solution, producers of music, comedy, opera, you name it, have looked hopefully toward cheap and reliable testing as a potential solution.

Here is how the speculative thinking has gone.

Perhaps someone would take a test at home on the morning of an event and then hand some kind of digital certificate over to an usher, perhaps on their phone. Or maybe instead of taking a temperature–which people have learned to tolerate in bars and restaurants–an usher at a venue might actually be able to deliver some kind of test in the lobby, only allowing through those who test negative. In the many discussions on the logistics of reopening venues, pinpoint rapid testing has

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