Was Phish’s Madison Square Garden Run a Superspreader Event? Some, Including Howard Stern, Think So

Page McConnell, from left, Trey Anastasio,
Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

The recent run of Phish shows at Madison Square Garden had people talking for all kinds of reasons. The four-night bow represented dates rescheduled from New Year’s 2021 (due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 omicron variant), and surreptitiously fell on the stoner holiday of April 20, or 4/20; the band debuted a new stage that provided an even more psychedelic backdrop to its top-of-the-line light show; and for a late-night bonus, giant dolphins danced around the perimeter of the venue’s roof and bubbles were piped in above the crowds. All over social media, fans reveled in the band’s return, and the end of their own live music drought, brought on by two-plus years of lockdown.

But in the days that followed, it seems another wave was forming, of concert attendees who got sick and subsequently tested positive for COVID. Perhaps the best known case was that of Howard Stern Show executive producer Jason Kaplan, a devoted Phish-head who enthusiastically described his own attendance at the MSG shows while on-air. Noticing — and mocking — Kaplan’s scratchy throat, Stern asked the producer to take a home COVID test, and it was revealed on Wednesday’s show that the test did indeed turn out positive.

Upon further polling, several attendees contacted by Variety report hearing of multiple positive cases among their circle of Phish friends. “I personally have knowledge of at least five people,” says Jeff Kravitz, a photographer and longtime Phish fan, who went to all four shows. “What’s going around now is really contagious,” he adds, noting that he contracted COVID on April 10 and was able to quarantine before the concerts. “[The virus] was live in that room. Even people who were wearing masks ended up getting it anyway.”

The band took appropriate steps to mitigate possible COVID exposure. Every person who entered the venue was required to show proof of vaccination and an ID. “And they really looked,” offers Kravitz. And eyewitnesses report that many wore masks while inside. But between the consumption of alcohol, cannabis and nitrous oxide (a popular high inhaled — and shared — via balloon), it seems the tens of thousands of Phish fans at MSG — the venue’s nightly capacity is 20,000 — were particularly prone to spreading the virus, and at risk of contracting it.

(Variety has reached out to Phish for comment.)

Taper Todd Hinden, who spent several months in ICU with COVID in 2021, described the four shows as a “superspreader for sure.” He claims knowing “like a dozen” attendees who got sick after the run.

“I saw people sharing joints, balloons and drinks — it was like normal,” says Kravitz. “It wasn’t anybody holding back.”

That take was confirmed by Kaplan on Stern. “I got no one to blame but myself,” he said. “It’s out there, it’s still happening. … Nothing is worth getting COVID for, but it was an awesome show.”

Stern spent the better part of three hours, between Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s editions, talking about Phish and inviting fans to call in and recount their experiences — including chosen mind-altering substances — at the shows. Music industry veteran Harvey Leeds was among those who phoned in, describing the scene at MSG, in part, as: “Everybody’s standing in line like a cattle lineup, without masks. … People were passing around vape pens and joints and sharing beers and soda. … I was very conscious of wearing a mask and then Sunday  … I’m coughing and sneezing. I get tested and, boom, positive. … This shit-storm ain’t over.”

Kaplan also acknowledged having attended a nitrous-heavy hotel room party after one of the two shows, and that he informed everyone he was in contact with of possible transmission.

Spreading the word proved key in the days following as fans took to Twitter.

Chopganda tweeted: “Remember when all of us #Phish fans made fun of the Sturgis super spreader event?”

Shaugn O’Donnell tweeted: “Turns out it’s not wook flu after all. If we crossed paths at #YEMSG you should test yourself #phish”

(Wook is short for Wookiee.)

Another attendee reached by Variety reports “coming down with COVID” on Tuesday, “despite being fully vaccinated, with two Pfizer boosters, and testing myself each day before the show.”

The irony was not lost on fans and pundits alike that these were postponed dates for the original run of shows from December 29 to 31 and January 1 due to increased prevalence of COVID in New York at the end of 2021.

Phish’s New Year’s Eve show, which was recreated for the April 22 concert, is traditionally the biggest event of the year on the Phish calendar. Resale ticket prices for the rescheduled show were as expensive as $1,000. The quartet plays three sets and for the final one they usually provide some sort of spectacle in addition to a massive balloon drop. On April 22, just past midnight, the band members walked out on stage and assumed their usual positions. As they began Set 3 with “Free,” the stage began to rise and lights flashed on the covering that draped over the sides. They segued into “A Wave of Hope” and then “Waves” and “Sand.” As the band noodled, shapes began flying around the arena. A total of five drone-controlled dolphin balloons performed an elegant dance, swooping in the air below the ceiling and above the crowd. To top it off, a large whale joined the dolphins. It was as if the Museum of Natural History had merged with an aquarium.

Sources from the Phish orbit suggest that there was an effort to move forward with the shows “full steam ahead” — the use-them-or-lose-them demand on venue dates due to dozens of rescheduled tours undoubtedly a driver — but precautions were in place. Everyone was masked backstage, which was off limits to all but the crew and immediate friends and family, and on the floor was strict enforcement of a wristband system to keep crashers out.

Phish’s late spring and summer tour kicks off on May 27 with three shows at the Wharf Amphitheater in Orange Beach, AL. There are a total of 34 dates through Sept. 4, finishing with four nights at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce, CO. Hot tour stops include Ruoff Music Center, Noblesville, IN (June 3-5); Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Bethel, NY (July 22-23); Atlantic City Beach, Atlantic City, NJ (Aug. 5-7); and Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI (Aug. 12-14). The venues are all outdoors.

This week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said of COVID rates in the U.S. (via PBS NewsHour): “We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase.” Still, he cautioned that the pandemic is still very much alive globally.