Was Woodstock really held during a pandemic in 1969?

Woodstock pandemic 1969 coronavirus
Photo via James M Shelley/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.0)
  • Woodstock was held during the H3N2 influenza pandemic in August 1969
  • H3N2 was not as lethal as COVID-19
  • The event was not held during any of the virus’ seasonal peaks

People are growing ever more impatient for their countries, cities, and towns to reopen. The coronavirus pandemic continues to shutter businesses and force employees to work from behind a screen, despite the fact many areas around the world have loosened restrictions. As people grow more frustrated with quarantine, aka quarantine fatigue, a new narrative has arisen online: The approach to the current pandemic is overblown because 1969’s Woodstock proceeded in the midst of a pandemic.

While it is true that Woodstock was held in 1969 despite the H3N2 influenza pandemic, there are several important details to consider. For starters, the H3N2 pandemic cannot compare to COVID-19 in terms of lethality, according to Snopes. In fact, one scientific adviser called the 1968 pandemic “wimpy.” The time of year must also be considered, as Woodstock did not occur during any of H3N2’s peak months. In the summer of 1969, when Woodstock occurred, there were very few reported cases of the virus. 

There are a number of similarities between the two outbreaks, which has helped this example to gain steam online. Both H3N2 and COVID-19 cause upper respiratory symptoms and spread quickly. They are both at their most dangerous among people 65 years and older. Both viruses are capable of infecting animals, and both have affected people worldwide. These similarities have pushed people to draw unreliable parallels between the two.

The biggest difference, apart from lethality, between these two viruses boils down to the nation’s response. In 1969, the U.S. hardly reacted to the pandemic. A few schools were closed due to staffing shortages, but very little changed for most Americans. This is stark when compared to the broad closures and mandatory masks of our current pandemic. 

The reasoning behind these different approaches vary but tend to boil down to a few details. Americans spend far more time out and about in 2020—we patronize far more restaurants and bars, for one—and are extremely protective of our freedoms. Faith in science and our government has also plummeted in recent years, which has led to an uptick in conspiracy theories. 

All of these elements combine to create an untrusting populace who feels that the freedoms they traditionally take for granted have been stolen from them. At times, it feels a far cry from the attitude of peace, love, and music from more than 50 years ago. 

But even in 2020, some are determined to watch live music. Though music festivals might not return until 2022, bands like Smash Mouth and Fozzy made headlines in August for playing live shows to hundreds of people at the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota. During his band’s set, Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell cursed at the idea of COVID-19 and said, “Now we’re all here together tonight. And we’re being human once again.” A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that more than 100 people associated with that Smash Mouth show later tested positive for COVID-19, and a few weeks after that, a study showed that Sturgis was connected to 20% of all new cases in the U.S. (more than 250,000 cases out of 1.2 million new cases).

Music festivals have also moved online five decades after Woodstock, including Lollapalooza 2020—which was broadcast virtually on YouTube in late July, “The world needs beautiful music right now. The world needs protest music, outrageous music, and it needs love songs,” Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell told the Spokesman-Review. “I felt we as messengers, it’s our time, regardless of money, to make a statement.” The Austin City Limits Festival also planned a virtual event for the fall, and as Emmett Beliveau, the COO of C3 Presents, said, “The music is a little quieter around town these days.” At least one smaller music festival in Pennsylvania opened for business in October, though.

On Sept. 29, Bonnaroo—the Manchester, Tennessee music festival—was postponed for the third time. Now, organizers say the festival scheduled for June 2021 has been moved back to September 2021. A few weeks after that announcement, the mayor of Manchester, Lonnie Norman, died from COVID-19.

In total, over the course of 18 months in the late 1960s, the H3N2 influenza pandemic killed 100,000 people in the U.S. Between the first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. in mid-January and May 25—less than five months total—nearly 100,000 Americans have died. By September, nearly 200,000 Americans had died.

Sources: BuzzFeed, Snopes, New York Post, New England Journal of Medicine

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