Bob Kleinman, 68, was looking forward to a getaway befitting a diehard Deadhead: Kicking off the new year with three nights of Dead and Company concerts on a Cancún beach for the band’s “Playing in the Sand” residential shows, which will run Jan. 7 to Jan. 10 and Jan. 13 through Jan. 16.
The Somers, New York, retiree bought the tickets in April as vaccines were first becoming more widely available and it seemed the world was finally turning a corner in the pandemic. But by December — when the extremely transmissible Omicron variant started to surge — he wanted to pull out.
No way was Kleinman — who has a compromised immune system as he goes through chemotherapy for lymphoma — going to risk his health, even for his favorite band. But when he sought out a refund for the nearly $15,000 package he bought for his family, he was told no dice. Even after five calls, show organizer CID Presents told him packages were non-refundable — and the show would go on.
And Kleinman wasn’t alone. He’s one of thousands of Covid-fearing Deadheads who pushed event planners for a means to opt out of the show; more than 2,100 people signed a petition in recent days calling for the show’s organizers to issue refunds. Fans also set up several pages on Facebook about the shows to argue about safety concerns.
Finally, amid the push from the Deadheads, on Wednesday, the band and CID announced that anyone can now get a refund, although the shows are slated to continue. As case counts rise, they’re now recommending that guests not leave the resort, and all events that CID planned off-site have been canceled.
“Any package holders no longer interested in attending Playing in the Sand for either weekend are now eligible for a refund by … submitting your refund request by 5 p.m. ET on Dec. 31, 2021,” the band and promoters said.
Several fans who spoke with Rolling Stone before the announcement was made had already decided to skip the event, however — even without the promise of refunds. There were just too many factors at play that made the trip sound, increasingly, like a dicey idea — including increasingly difficult access to testing and the perils of travel.
“For a lot of people, I don’t think walking around with an N95 mask is their idea of a good time,” says 52-year-old Mike McGourty, who has tickets for weekend two but isn’t sure if he will go. “I hope no one gets sick. Statistically speaking, people will, though.” The two-weekend series is set to bring in more than 12,000 attendees to the Moon Palace resort.
Covid-19’s heavily transmissible Omicron variant has already led to scores of concert cancellations in the U.S. — including fellow jam band Phish’s New Year’s run of shows in New York and iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball in Miami — and the fact that the Dead and Company’s dates will take place at a Mexican resort has led some more cautious attendees to balk even more than usual since travel is necessary for most fans.
Flights were and are a concern for fans. “There are thousands of flight cancellations right now,” says 61-year-old Rocco Pescatore, who held tickets for the second weekend but decided not to go. Deadheads like Pescatore also worry about having to isolate should they contract the virus while in Mexico. To leave, attendees have to take another negative antigen test within a day of their departing flight. If they get Covid while in Cancún, attendees must quarantine in Mexico for an additional 10 days. Kerry Stauber, a 61-year-old nurse from New Jersey and a longtime Deadhead, canceled her plans based on that worry. Stauber isn’t afraid of Covid — she got both her vaccine doses and the booster — but that she couldn’t risk being stuck in Mexico and missing 10 more days of work.
If Playing in the Sand attendees test positive for Covid-19 when they arrive or before they leave, they’ll be given a free quarantine room at the resort until they have a negative test. If all the quarantine rooms get occupied, CID will arrange for the guest to stay at a nearby hotel, the company said.
Fans are also concerned about obtaining relevant testing. CID had very strict safety measures in place at the get-go — requiring proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test taken within four days of check-in — but organizers ramped up mandates just a few weeks before the fest, requiring a negative test taken two days prior instead of four. “It was barely two weeks until the first weekend when they updated the policy, people were freaking out about how to make it work,” Pescatore says.
Pescatore wasn’t alone. Several fans Rolling Stone spoke with fretted about scheduling PCR tests, as testing has been in high demand during the Omicron surge and testing labs in some cities with higher case counts are facing delays in getting results back on time. Still, the event does offer the option to order a PCR test for those who can’t schedule one on time in their home city — for an additional $60.
“It’s a different world than in April,” Stauber says. “The cases were dropping, the vaccine was just starting to become more widely available to the public. No one thought this was where we would be by now.”
Now that refunds are in place, it remains to be seen how many fans will make the trek in this “different world.”