This article was originally published on Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in comedy. Subscribe here to get posts like this in your inbox.
Last week Joe Rogan, the Austin-based podcaster and friend of Elon Musk, was exposed to Covid-19. This week he appeared on an unmasked indoor comedy show, apparently ignoring CDC quarantine guidelines.
The timeline here is very straightforward. On January 19th, Rogan and Chappelle had a show at Stubb’s Austin, a venue that does not require masks when audiences are seated. The comics were photographed hanging out backstage with other unmasked people, like comics Michelle Wolf and Donnell Rawlings, as well as billionaire Elon Musk and his wife Grimes, who had Covid earlier this month. On January 21st, Chappelle revealed he tested positive for Covid-19 and was isolating in accordance with CDC guidelines. On January 25th, Rogan appeared on a live recording of the podcast Kill Tony at Antone’s Nightclub, a venue that also does not require masking when audiences are seated. In images of the show posted on Instagram, none of the comics are wearing masks. Unmasked audience and band members are visible as well.
CDC guidelines recommend that anyone who has a “close contact” with someone with Covid-19 stay home for 14 days after their last interaction with that person. The CDC’s definitions of “close contact” include “You were within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more” and “You had direct physical contact with the person (hugged or kissed them).”
Chappelle and his team have been conducting daily Covid-19 tests throughout the pandemic. Audiences at the Stubb’s residency receive rapid antigen tests upon entry. Rogan, who’s been providing rapid testing for his podcast guests since April, wrote on Instagram two days after Chappelle’s diagnosis that he “tested negative every day this week.” Neither his team nor Antone’s Nightclub have responded to my inquiries, but it stands to reason he went into the show with the assurance of a negative rapid test result.
The thing is, that assurance isn’t worth very much. As Virginia Tech epidemiologist Lisa M. Lee explained, rapid tests trade accuracy for speed. “They are approved for use when someone has COVID-19 symptoms, so using them to screen asymptomatic people who want to gather at a club is not necessarily going to prevent an infected person from slipping through,” she told us. Antigen tests like the ones Rogan and Chappelle provide at their Stubb’s residency require a relatively large amount of virus to turn up positive; people with lower amounts of viral particles—perhaps because they’re early in their infection—may receive a false negative even though they’re perfectly capable of spreading the virus.
Frequent rapid testing is an effective means of identifying cases within a community (or workplace), but it doesn’t change the fact that any single negative result may be inaccurate, and it’s no excuse to disregard basic safety protocols. Asked if there’s any conceivable reason someone shouldn’t quarantine after exposure to Covid-19, Lee demurred. “Contacts to persons who test positive for COVID-19 infection should enter quarantine immediately and remain separated for at least 10 days, or until day 7 if you have a negative test then,” she said. Again, six days elapsed between the Stubb’s show and the Antone’s show.
As Paste’s Olivia Cathcart wrote earlier this week, comics like Rogan and Chappelle, whether they like it or not, are role models for their industry and fans. Their conduct during the pandemic sets a template for millions of people. Flawed as it was, their use of rapid testing at all their shows (and indoor afterparties) demonstrates some feeble awareness of this responsibility: at the very least they wanted to be seen as doing things right. Rogan’s refusal to quarantine makes clear that the appearance of concern was only ever an appearance. It endangers not only the people he directly came in contact with at Antone’s—and everyone else they came in contact with afterward—but also everyone who’ll see him out and about after his Covid-19 exposure and think to themselves, Well, my friend just tested positive, but I feel fine; maybe I don’t need to worry so much.
This is especially dangerous at a time when more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus are spreading across the country. What’s called for is more vigilance; instead, we’re seeing less and less. It’s trendy these days for comics and club owners justifying their reckless conduct to cite government failures as a defense—Congress hasn’t bailed out comedy, so we have no choice but to perform indoor unmasked shows!—but government failures only place a greater onus on powerful, affluent comics like Rogan not to replicate those failures. His refusal to follow the barest of safety protocols in the wake of an exposure to Covid-19 is nothing short of a public health risk.
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons.