Country stars Chase Rice, Chris Janson spark outrage with videos of packed concert crowds

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Country singer Chase Rice is taking heat after sharing video footage of concerts he played in east Tennessee Saturday night, with footage showing large, packed outdoor crowds rocking out shoulder-to-shoulder with no sign of social distancing or masks.

Rice posted video of his riled-up audience in east Tennessee, taken from the stage, as part of an Instagram post with the caption: “We back.” The video clips remained up Sunday on his Instagram story, even as it became the subject of angry voices on social media.

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One of those was country hitmaker Kelsea Ballerini, who ripped into Rice in a tweet. “Imagine being selfish enough to put thousands of people’s health at risk, not to mention the potential ripple effect, and play a NORMAL country concert right now,” Ballerini wrote. “@ChaseRiceMusic, we all want (and need) to tour. We just care about our fans and their families enough to wait.”

Another country star, Chris Janson, also used social media to share footage of a concert he played to a sea of fans Saturday night , although it was difficult to tell from the footage whether any of the members of the similarly jam-packed audience at the Hwy 30 Fest in Filer, Idaho were wearing masks. Late in the day Sunday, he deleted his video footage from Instagram, along with a tweet that showed the festival crowd.

Although shots of jammed crowds at bars in Nashville had recently aroused controversy, these are believed to be the first instances of stars drawing standing-room-only, non-distancing crowds to ticketed performances in large numbers since national quarantining began … or at least the first where evidence of the complete lack of social distancing was proudly shared by the stars themselves.

Brian May, VP of the Brushy Mountain Group, which hosted the Rice concert at the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, told Variety Sunday that “all local requirements were abided by for the recent concert, and numerous precautions were taken.” But he said that different protocols were being considered for future shows, up to and including postponements. (The venue has further shows booked in the coming weeks by country artists Kip Moore, Jamey Johnson and Sawyer Brown.)

Although the audience appears vast in the video Rice posted, and some news reports had attendance at 4,000, Brushy Mountain said the figure was actually well below that. “We drastically reduced our maximum venue capacity of 10,000 to 4,000 maximum capacity (lower than the state’s advisement of 50%) with less than 1,000 in attendance Saturday night, providing ample space in the outdoor lawn area for fans to spread out to their own comfort level,” said May. “All guests were given temperature checks prior to entering the venue and free hand sanitizer was provided to everyone at entry. All vendors and staff were advised to wear masks and gloves when interacting with guests, and bandanas were available for purchase on-site.”

May indicated the crowd was not eager to voluntarily follow social distancing guidelines, which will prompt reevaluation. “We were unable to further enforce the physical distancing recommended in the signage posted across the property and are looking into future alternative scenarios that further protect the attendees, artists and their crews and our employees. We are reevaluating the series from the top to bottom — from implementing further safety measures, to adding stanchions, to converting the space to drive-in style concerts, to postponing shows.”

A Twitter user with the handle @AlexFountain23 was at the Rice concert and defended the show against several detractors. “I was there, it was a great concert,” he tweeted. “There was plenty of room for people who wanted to social distance. Masks do nothing. Can’t live in fear forever… The venue was so large that if you wanted you could be 50 ft away from people at times… There are plenty more things out there that we could get sick from that’s worse than COVID. Chase Rice put on a great show!”

Janson crowing about his un-socially distanced show in Idaho drew less immediate attention than Rice’s did. But Janson was actually playing to more people than Rice, apparently. A source close to the festival says attendance was around 2800 in Idaho, versus the 1000 cited for ice in Tennessee.

Says one person who was at Janson’s festival gig in Idaho who spoke with Variety, ” I personally one saw one person wearing a mask the entire day, and that was a merch seller. Even vendors and staff were not wearing masks throughout the night.” Two other headliners on the bill at the three-day festival outside of Twin Falls were said to have dropped out because of COVID-19 concerns.

Rice has made his resistance to quarantining known before. Back on March 13, he tweeted, “I’m not throwing blame to any promoters or decision makers on this, they gotta protect themselves and the well being of people, so I get all sides of this deal. I personally choose not [to] live scared, especially of something that I can’t really control.” A few days later, he released a song he’d written about the coronavirus crisis: “Dear corona, you don’t know the heart of a country fan / You don’t know that we don’t give a damn / So you can reschedule Stagecoach / But you gotta understand / That you don’t know the heart of a country fan.”

Janson also wrote his own song about frustration over the lockdowns, “Put Me Back to Work,” in April, with lines including, “Open up the doors and fill the seats / ‘Cause people still gotta eat.”

Tennessee is one of many states that is seeing an alarming uptick in coronavirus cases. As of Saturday, the COVID-19 case count for Tennessee was 40,172, including 584 deaths, 2,564 hospitalizations and 26,159 recovered. The Tennessee Department of Health reported 728 new cases on Saturday. Friday had 1,410 new cases being announced, the largest single-day increase in reported cases in Tennessee since the crisis began.

Idaho is also experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases. In the past week, the state twice set single-day records for new cases being reported, and added more to its COVID-19 tally during the week than for the entire month of May, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Rice and Janson were not the only country music stars taking a stage on Saturday night, although the others appeared to be in settings where social distancing was at more of a premium.

Jimmie Allen played a drive-in show for attendees who sat in or on their cars. “Played our first show last night since March 11,” Allen tweeted. “First ever ‘social distance’ show. Not gonna lie. it was weird at first. I got tired so I sat down and talked to the crowd for the while. I was totally out of ‘show’ shape but it felt great to play again.”

Jon Pardi was doing an outdoor show in Georgia, but those familiar with the concert describe it as a dinner show where patrons were set up at tables, each with their own 15 x 15 square they were asked to stay within, with six-foot distancing between table spaces. Temperatures were checked at entry and masks were said to be required on shuttles to the venue, although not during dinner or the performance.

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