JACKSONVILLE, Fla — A large music event held in the middle of a pandemic with hundreds of people close together is bringing a Jacksonville business into the limelight for the wrong reasons and causing concern among the medical community.
River City Brewing Company — the decades-old Southbank restaurant — has been in the news lately with Jacksonville's Downtown Investment Authority approving its demolition next year.
But over the weekend, the riverfront property made waves on social media again when it served as a venue for a house music (an electronic dance music genre) show where viral videos showed hundreds storming the stage, elbow-to-elbow with few face masks in sight.
Last Friday night, Claude VonStroke, a house producer from Los Angeles, alongside two opening acts, performed on the restaurant's semi-enclosed outdoor deck area. It was part of a regional tour throughout the south this fall.
Videos on social media posted by the event's promoters, I Love Florida HOUSE, show tight groups of people rushing the stage with no semblance of social distancing. Two days later, Duval County recorded its highest day for new COVID-19 cases in four months.
"From a purely observational perspective, before testing and contact tracing have been conducted, given the dense population on the dance floor and the lack of masks, this has strong potential to be a super-spreader event," said Chau Kelly, an associate professor at the University of North Florida who specializes in public health. "I’ve watched the video several times now and can spot only one mask on a patron toward the back of the club."
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According to the show's event page, face masks and sanitizing were required upon entry, temperatures would be taken at the door and social distance guidelines "would be enforced." But enforcement got harder the closer people got to the pit area by the stage, organizers revealed.
"You can take a horse to water but you can’t make them drink," said Kyle Myers, one of the show's promoters. "There’s always room to improve. We had sanitizing stations, wipes, extra masks, we were in an open-air venue. It didn't go as smoothly as we'd like, but we're also under a microscope right now."
Myers added that since the show was 21-and-over for entry and since VonStroke's fans skew a little older, organizers didn't expect security to have to enforce masks as often as they did.
Photos and videos on social media revealed some masks were worn — especially by staff and performers along with attendees lingering near the back of the venue. But less and less were visible as cameras scanned closer to the pit area.
River City Brewing Company General Manager Kristine Moore works with promoters like Myers to organize all of the restaurant and venue's events.
Moore said things weren't as crowded as the video makes it appear and that the event was compliant with the city's guidance.
"We're an open-air venue. For Christmas, we usually have 1,800 people outside. This was 400 people," she said. "Anyone coming to the event wore a mask and got temped. The only time people went inside was to use the bathroom and they had to wear masks. We wouldn't even let the bathroom fill up, we only had two people at a time."
On the event's Facebook page ahead of the show, one woman asked if attendees had to keep their masks on while dancing. Promoters never answered that question publicly.
Because the event was outdoors, it follows Jacksonville's guidelines for COVID-19 safety — the same way campaign rallies for President Donald Trump were able to pack 15,000 people outside without recourse.
"The executive order only applies to indoor, public spaces where you can’t be 6 feet from others (not in your party)," city spokeswoman Nikki Kimbleton said. "We continue to encourage citizens to take personal responsibility. Wear masks, wash your hands and stay 6 feet apart from others when you can."
At the River City Brewing Company show, while masks were encouraged when people weren't drinking or were moving around the space, Moore says a loophole she didn't anticipate was people on the dancefloor with a drink in hand.
"We're not trying to be crazy," she added. "Everybody has a mask to get in, but not everyone has to wear a mask. People dancing with their drinks is not something I was anticipating."
As footage of the event circulated online, so did the criticism.
Worst Beer Blog — a popular beer meme page with over 32,000 followers on Instagram — posted footage from the show with the caption "Meanwhile in Florida," garnering over 100 replies.
"If that isn't a super spreader, I don't know what is," one comment read. "Only the DJ is wearing a mask," another pointed out.
Others called the large group of people "irresponsible." Those who attended the event came to its defense, adding that they enjoyed themselves and that if someone is worried about people not wearing masks, they can stay at home.
COVID-19 carriers can be asymptomatic and can unknowingly pass it along to vulnerable, high-risk populations. Experts say masks protect people around the person wearing one as well as the mask-wearer themself.
Moore says the main video circulating online — which was originally posted by Myers — doesn't capture the whole venue.
"That's disheartening. It makes it look like a sardine," she said. "It kind of looks like it's indoors and it's not. It's not a great look because it's not shot to be a whole look — it's very poor representation. Obviously, no one's filming us cleaning bathrooms."
Moore and Myers say that with 400 people attending VonStroke's set, River City Brewing Company was observing partial capacity. Full capacity outside according to Moore would be around 1,200 to 1,800 occupants. The building’s indoor capacity is about 330, public records show.
Both organizers maintain that for this event, 400 people in the outdoor area should have been social distance friendly. (Moore said they would measure the total square-footage of the outdoor area, which is not listed in city documents, since Fire Marshal records typically list the indoor capacity. This story will be updated with that measurement upon response.)
While among the most visually striking, this isn't the only place Jaxsons are forgoing social distance and not wearing masks. Since Florida restrictions loosened and the state entered its final reopening phase, restaurants, bars and nightclubs are able to operate at full capacity again.
Across town, social media posts show bars, restaurants and clubs across the city slammed with people and minimal social distancing, all while COVID-19 cases continue to climb and as the holiday season approaches.
At Birdies in Five Points, one post from late October described "swimming through a sea of people." At restaurants across the city, lines form out the door on Friday and Saturday nights.
City officials say they haven't seen indications in hospital numbers justifying strengthened regulations.
"Mayor Curry is in constant contact with all eight of Jacksonville’s hospital administrators, as well as our Emergency Management team," Kimbleton said. "At no time in recent weeks have hospitals experienced large spikes in patients with COVID-19. We continue to ask citizens to exercise personal responsibility."
Still, there are some businesses locals say are going above and beyond to keep patrons and employees safe.
Restaurants like Domu and Jax Beach Brunch Haus are performing temperature checks before entry, and 1748 Bakehouse continues to limit capacity and has a jar of clean styluses for people to tip and sign receipts instead of hitting a touch screen.
Community Loaves in Murray Hill is still honoring outdoor seating and to-go meals only. Bold Bean Coffee's Riverside location has seating markers taped off. Bars like Silver Cow and Grape and Grain Exchange supply masks to people who don't have their own. In Five Points, Hawkers installed plexiglass partitions between each booth while BREW remains take-out only. Alewife is seating at limited capacity and is strictly enforcing mask-wearing.
But enforcement at a city level is tougher now that Florida is in Phase 3 of its reopening. According to Gov. Ron DeSantis, businesses can require customers to wear masks, but outstanding fines and penalties against people who refuse are suspended. Jacksonville has never applied fines for non-compliance.
On Tuesday, DeSantis pledged not to place Florida under another lockdown.
Kelly, the UNF professor, said videos from the show at River City Brewing Company raise "serious concerns" because of their resemblance to a super-spreader event that occurred in South Korea back in May.
In that instance, a 29-year-old man who caught COVID-19 sparked what the L.A. Times described as a "frenzied search" to find the thousands of people he came in contact with at clubs and bars he visited.
The case cluster prompted a debate between generations asking who was to blame, how much fun is too much fun and who should be held accountable.
Kelly added that South Korea and other countries outside the United States have more resources when it comes to contact tracing, another shortfall Florida faces as cases spike again.
"The challenge we face here in the U.S., and Florida in particular, is that we’re not doing well with the contact tracing because of the lack of contact tracers combined with reluctant respondents," she said.
Still, Myers and Moore maintain that the show was an effort to gain back some normalcy.
All over the world, the live music and concert industry has taken a huge hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World Economic Forum reported a six-month shutdown would cost the industry over $10 billion in sponsorships. In Jacksonville, a slew of concerts, small shows and stadium tours were postponed or canceled altogether.
"This has been really hard on Florida," Myers said. "We’re not used to cabin fever. We don’t get snowed in. There were people who posted their gratitude for this."
Myers said a more innovative fix, like a drive-in concert, would've been tricky to pull off because of the city's layout and infrastructure. The city played host to a drive-in concert in October at Daily's Place and Sun-Ray Cinema has regularly hosted drive-in movies across town. On Dec. 19, Sun-Ray will host its first drive-in concert featuring the Jacksonville Children's Chorus. But Myers said for a small production company, the logistics were too difficult.
"I’ve done shows at multiple locations for 20 years. Being open-air was important to us," he said. "Everyone’s right to their opinion. We did everything we thought normal people staying inside a grocery store, which is not open-air, would want."
Moore, who says she is high risk herself if she were to catch COVID-19, said events like this come with a double-edged sword.
"We were closed for two months. We're a very large venue. It costs so much to keep lights on," she said. "It's disheartening [seeing the video spread]. It's tough times. With things closed downtown, things have really changed for us — business is more difficult."
Moore added that since the restaurant's fate, along with the rest of the marina, hangs in the balance as Jacksonville’s Downtown Investment Authority and the City Council discuss the Southbank's future, business is even worse because people assume the restaurant is already closed.
"People hearing we're closed isn't helping," she said. "It's a constant fight to keep people coming in the doors. We have families. Everybody's just trying to survive."
But for the residents skipping Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners this year, they say seeing large gatherings like this came with an extra sting. And for the local beer industry in particular, where breweries were forced to remain closed or get a food license if they wanted to open for months, this wasn't the comeback brewers were hoping for.
In the comments section of Worst Beer Blog's re-post of the video, locals praised spots like Aardwolf in San Marco, Intuition Ale Works downtown and Main & Six in Springfield for their diligence.
"River City Brewing does not represent Jacksonville," local resident Daniel Johns tweeted in response. "Many other local breweries have been following guidelines and serving quality brews and food, definitely not doing this."
Johns said seeing the video on his timeline caught him off guard.
"I know it's probably business-driven because of the pandemic, but it still doesn't represent Jacksonville," he said. "When this all started and as breweries were closed, many were vocal and fought to open back up. River City Brewing hosting an event of this magnitude ... jeopardizes all the progress others have made to remain open and complaint."