UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson on concert crowds, COVID-19 and the live music scene

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson on concert crowds, COVID-19 and the live music scene

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UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson’s name usually sits next to words like “cardiologist” or “Emory University School of Medicine.” Or, next to tweets that, for many Arkansans, have come to sound like a voice of reason in an environment otherwise cluttered with vitriol and disinformation. But Patterson is also an avid music lover and a musician himself; check out his band Fox Green’s excellent debut, “The Longest April.” And those tweets? They sound off from an avatar of Patterson’s face partially obscured by a Big Star record. So, if there’s anyone well-situated to weigh in the question of how to navigate concerts (and social life) safely alongside the delta variant’s rampage through the South, we figure it’s him. Here’s what he had to say. 

The images of Lollapalooza last week (and Phish at the Walmart AMP, for that matter) were hard to see. Instead of the triumphant, liberating return to safe live music we daydreamed about from quarantine in summer 2020, there’s an air of dread about this summer/autumn’s live music events. When is a concert crowd too big for our current moment? Given our transmission rates and the nature of the delta variant, what size of crowd makes you nervous to see outdoors? Indoors? Or am I thinking about it all wrong by thinking about it in terms of crowd size?

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The rules of the road for good behavior in a grocery store or a hair salon apply to music venues, too. We still need to be six feet apart from people around us. We still need to be wearing masks. And if we’re not able to do that, the crowd’s too big. And I hate to say it, but until we know that everyone is vaccinated, it’s just not safe for us to be closer than that. It’s always concerning to me that if you have a free-spirited event where there may be some alcohol involved, that people may let their guard down, and that’s precisely what creates superspreader events. Just like family gatherings, just like going to church, concerts can be superspreader events if we’re not careful. 

I know that you’re a musician, and that you know a lot of fellow musicians. What have you heard from them during the pandemic? Most working musicians I know are in an impossible situation: They’re vaccinated and want to play shows responsibly, but can’t afford to cancel tours or shows without some sort of safety net in place. 

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It’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? What’s really made this worse for my friends, who are used to traveling nationally and internationally and playing gigs, is that they made plans three months ago, when we were all very optimistic that people would get vaccinated and we would get ahead of the delta variant that was impacting other parts of the world. And that unfortunately just didn’t happen. So now these plans that were made three months ago to go out on tour are making everybody very anxious. You know, there’s a sense that, hey, the show must go on, but there’s also the sense that — remember when The Who played Cincinnati, and there were dead bodies at the end of the concert? No one wants to feel responsible for leaving dead bodies when they leave town. 

Right, and in this case, you’re not seeing the aftermath of those decisions — like, seeing dead bodies as tangible results of a miscalculated decision.

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That’s absolutely true, and I hope that it doesn’t cause people to be cavalier. We just saw what happened at Lollapalooza and I think we all know that there was a lot of dangerous, risky behavior and that there are going to be people who were negatively impacted by that. We see what happens at Lake of the Ozarks. Same thing. This [virus] doesn’t give you a break because you have really good taste in music.

AT CITY HALL: Dr. Cam Patterson and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott in June 2020.

What can venues do to make the biggest impact? Would you like to see live music venues asking for vaccination cards at the door? Or canceling concerts altogether?

I hope we can find a way to do this safely. Governor Hutchinson has been very clear in his view that this is a matter of personal responsibility, and I hope business owners take personal responsibility, too. You know, asking people if they have been vaccinated or have had a negative COVID test recently is what they need to do to be responsible, and they have the liberty and power to do that. Since we are eschewing mandates from government institutions, maybe mandates from businesses will be the key to getting those who are vaccine-hesitant to realize, hey, maybe this is the right thing to do.

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That might answer my next question, which is: Should we all just stay home again — those with the privilege to be able to do so? There’s definitely some tension there, I think, and some feeling on the part of vaccinated people that’s like, “I’ve done my part. I’m done staying home, and I’m ready for the onus to fall elsewhere in the social strata.”

I still think that we can leave our houses responsibly. Maybe by demonstrating responsible ways of doing that, we’ll convince people who haven’t been quite as responsible that they need to get on board. I also think you can walk up to a venue and decide not to go in. There’s nothing wrong with that. Another thing businesses could do would be to tell concertgoers that, you know, “If you don’t feel safe here, we’ll give you your money back.” They should not just be guaranteeing you a good musical experience. They should also be guaranteeing you a safe musical experience.

Have you found moments to listen to music this year? What album(s) are you listening to right now?

Of course I listen to music. I was listening to the new Sleater-Kinney and I have to tell ya, if Janet Weiss were still playing drums in the band, it would have been their best album. I really miss her. … You know, music hasn’t stopped. I definitely have to give a shout out to the Low Cut Connie album, which is live covers from their pandemic shows that they did over the internet. I think it’s a great way to memorialize what we all went through. Music keeps us alive. 

What kind of guitar do you play, and what kind of amp do you use in Fox Green?

Oh, God, I have more guitars than I have sense. I probably have 15 guitars. I’ve got five mandolins. I’ve got four lap steels. But I’ve lately been playing a Mexican Telecaster. It’s gold with sparkles, and it makes me sound like Keith Richards. 

What has it been like for you and your colleagues to be so much in the public eye? Maybe you count on doing a little of that in your role as chancellor, but it isn’t necessarily something someone is looking for when they decide to pursue a career in medicine, and for that matter, can sort of present a clash of sensibilities, where the medicine world can be very patient and data-driven, while the TV world wants fast, clear-cut answers. 

I’m not used to that type of attention, and as a highly functioning introvert, it’s not something that I gravitate to. I think most of my colleagues feel the same way. At the same time, I realize that the media attention that we’ve gotten is not just about getting attention. It’s about telling the truth and speaking about science and being trustworthy and respectful. It’s really made me focus very hard in making sure that what I say is truthful and can be verified, so that when I tell people what they need to do, that there’s veracity behind it. It’s harder than you might realize, because people ask you questions that you’re not prepared for, and you don’t have the right data and the right knowledge, you can lose credibility very quickly. 

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