Founders of "In My Elements" Share Goals, Safety Measures, Challenges Ahead of COVID-19 Compliant Event [Interview]

With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the economy, the music industry has been particularly hard-hit. Since mid-March, live music events have been canceling left, right, and center in response to the pandemic.

While the electronic music community has found its new normal through livestreams ranging from free-form, laid-back DJ sets and intimate production walkthroughs to full-blown virtual festivals, safe resumption of in-person events in the US has appeared implausible outside of drive-in concerts. However, even as US festivals postpone or cancel outright, an independently organized electronic music retreat in Pennsylvania hopes to pave the way for safely hosting in-person music gatherings.

Taking place this weekend from July 10th to July 12th, In My Elements will host house and techno heavy-hitters Maceo Plex, DJ Tennis, and Doc Martin, among other DJs, for an open-air weekend retreat at a lakefront summer camp in Northeastern Pennsylvania with rigorous safety protocols.

Among the safety measures instated for the event is two-part COVID-19 testing, which will be conducted before the event at a designated location and on-site in an open, socially distanced environment upon arrival. Organizers are also planning a limited capacity of 225 guests that leaves 60% of the event grounds vacant, arranging all stages and activities in open-air settings, and requiring a host of safety certifications from guests, among other precautions.

With COVID-19 showing no signs of slowing down in the US, it’s a tricky time to be hosting non-essential, large, in-person gatherings. However, In My Elements aims to highlight the possibility of doing so in a safe manner. spoke with the event's founders, Brett Herman and Timothy Monkiewicz, about their goals, challenges, and motivations when organizing In My Elements. Herman and Monkiewicz also shared more about their safety protocols, including how they were formed and how they will be enforced. What can you tell our readers about the In My Elements event?

Monkiewicz: In My Elements is a weekend retreat limited to only 225 guests, keeping the venue at one fourth capacity for the safety of all. The aim is to give people a good time to release and relax, which is much needed in this crazy time.

Another goal of the retreat is to begin creating solutions for gathering in a world with COVID-19. Our proposed solution is a two-part COVID-19 testing protocol, with one test before the retreat starts, before guests and staff leave their home areas, and another upon arrival. From what we’ve seen, people are going to start to gather one way or another. We think the best way to come together as safely as possible is in outdoor settings, with social distancing, masks, and, most importantly, testing beforehand. What motivated the idea to organize the event? And with everything going on, particularly in the US, what makes now the right time?

Monkiewicz: It came from the thought that everyone needs access to testing, and that safety improves with testing.

We could have done a one-day event or a lot of different things. But, in order to ensure that we could give our guests the highest value possible, we felt a three-day event was the way to go. Testing is expensive right now, but it can only go down, and we feel it is the way forward. If you’re going to pay a lot for a concert ticket, you might as well get the most out of it, which works for a three-day festival as opposed to a one night show. We’re not making money on the tests, just charging the exact amount that it costs us to facilitate. How did you create the safety and testing procedures for In My Elements?

Herman: We spent most of our time during lockdown researching safety guidelines from the CDC and many other agencies and asking how we could design the safest possible event. We needed to create something that could fit within those guidelines as well as state guidelines, as they’re updated. To our surprise, testing has barely even entered the conversation yet with regards to event safety.

We and the medical professionals we have consulted feel that with two COVID-19 tests within three days of going to any kind of gathering, we’re reducing the risk so greatly that this could be a game-changer. Outdoor events are already known as having a very low transmission rate. When measures like social distancing and masks are added, it goes down even further. And, if we’re having a tested, contained, outdoor retreat, then that would push the odds down even lower.

We have begun working with statisticians and epidemiologists to calculate this risk relative to other activities, and we all feel we are moving towards creating the safest possible conditions. In a time of widespread uncertainty and constantly evolving information around the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you affirm attendees’ trust in your safety measures?

Herman: It’s up to everybody to decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable going out and trust the safety measures in place are suitable–whether that be to a restaurant, bar, or this gathering in particular. If things change, we will change with them. If the guidelines change for any kind of gathering, we will adapt.

Insurance may now be able to cover a portion of the testing cost in some states, so we’re looking into ways to incorporate that and lower the cost to our guests. Like you said, things are changing on a daily basis. Our promise to our guests is that we will adapt. What’s been the biggest challenge in organizing the event during the pandemic?

Monkiewicz: There are a lot of people who are against doing anything right now. There’s a lot of conflict in the world, and anger built up from being stuck inside for four months. On social media, we’re seeing that people are really looking for an outlet to vent.

It’s tough paving new ground in doing something like this retreat. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it was right, if doctors, EMT’s, front-line medical works, and a variety of different medical professionals didn’t think we were making the retreat as safe as possible. These are people that are dealing with COVID-19 on a daily basis. They’re saying that people are starting to gather regardless and the best thing we can do is to test them as much as possible.

We have seen that although the risk is lower, asymptomatic people can spread COVID-19. And if you can test before that happens, it’s a great way to stop the spread. That’s our goal. We want everyone doing this. We want people testing before they go to work, go to the movies, or anything. If everyone is testing once a week, that’s going to help so much.

We’re trying to be leaders in the event space and find solutions. Our national government isn’t really driving free testing for all regardless of symptoms, just yet. But, if it has to come from the states or businesses trying to find solutions, we’re fine with that.

So, I guess one of our biggest challenges is trying to lead the way and find solutions in a country that’s torn in different directions. It’s one that we can get over, and we intend to help the country and our industry

Herman: To that point too, it’s been disappointing seeing scientific facts, such as the benefits of social distancing and wearing masks during a pandemic, become political. We want to base our decisions on facts, studies, and statistics. Have you had to jump through any hoops with local authorities in organizing In My Elements?

Monkiewicz: We’re going above and beyond what is required with our testing and safety protocols. Right now in Pennsylvania, 250 person outdoor gatherings are allowed. Ultimately, after doing this event, we want to start campaigning governments to provide free testing for all, regardless of symptoms. We want to show we’re being proactive and doing more than what’s required. People are going to gather, and if we take the proper precautions, people should be able to do so. It’s going to happen, so let’s do it safely. We want to show we’re being progressive and doing more than what’s required, and hope others see that and do the same.

Herman: Industries with lots of money to lobby are getting attention, such as sports. They have set up approved testing protocols. If everybody was getting a test every week, and it was free, how would that impact the odds of transmission at an outdoor gathering with additional testing? How would those numbers crunch? That’s something we’re working with statisticians and epidemiologists to calculate; we believe it will vastly reduce risk and help us all get back to normalcy quicker. Was it difficult to get artists to sign on to perform? Are there any special guarantees or assurances you had to make for headliners like Maceo Plex?

Monkiewicz: They were so excited, to be honest. They recognized what we were doing and how thorough the research was. We spent a lot of time working with doctors and medical teams coming up with the protocols for this event.

When we spoke with agents and industry colleagues, they said this seems like this is the best plan we’ve heard of anywhere. People want jobs again. The roadies, the tour managers, the agents, and so many people that have been laid off, it’s crazy. And it’s scary because there may not even be a vaccine for years, so they were really excited we’re trying to make it work safely now. We actually have a ton of people in different roles in the music industry who are excited about this and are supporting us. It’s been a nice feeling.

Herman: We released a statement on social media about this as well, we designed this event to be able to pivot very quickly if things change. So that’s all reflected in the deals we’ve made for this production. There’s going to be a level of uncertainty and doubt, we have to design with that in mind. Did any of the artists make any COVID-19 related requests for their rider?

Monkiewicz: They were just really excited about testing. They were excited to get tested themselves. It’s not just the crowd getting tested. The DJs are getting tested, their tour managers, everyone – twice! They’re all really on board with that.

They’re going to stay on-site too. Usually, they go to a hotel. But no one is leaving the site, once you’re tested you can not leave the grounds. If you have to go, you’re gone forever, haha! That kind of deal.

The world’s changed and if you don’t adapt, you’re going to have some problems. I give my gratitude to the DJs who signed up for this. I’m sure they’re a little scared of getting flack from people. But somebody has to do it. We have to get out there and start doing the best we can to do the safest thing possible.

If we just let people do their own thing, like in Florida beaches for example, we run into big problems. We have to wear masks, social distance, and get testing going. It’s so clear. It’s working in other countries. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Herman: To that end, there’s going to be a lot of firsts for everybody. The first time you go to a restaurant. The first time you go to a bar. The first time you see live music! It’s going to be weird, and maybe feel uncomfortable for some. But we have to start somewhere. We understand the sentiment that some people feel it’s too soon for anything. If you’re not comfortable leaving your house, then by all means, we respect that. That’s everyone’s choice. We have to get back to work as a nation, somehow, safely and slowly. And we want to be part of figuring out that way. If that means that we take some flack for being part of the initial movement, I can live with that. What plans do you have to keep the dancefloors compliant with social distance?

Monkiewicz: We’re working on creating distance markers and additional solutions for night time, like tea lights on bamboo sticks, designs that won’t get stomped out or rained out. It’s definitely new! A first for us, but we’re creating new concepts and will be going to be on-site shortly to test them out.

Herman: We’re shopping a few designs from both an aesthetic perspective and also to keep people aware of what adequate spacing looks and feels like. So it’s a design challenge that we are excitedly tackling. How will you enforce safety rules at the event? For example, if an attendee is repeatedly caught not wearing a mask or maintaining six feet distance from others?

Monkiewicz: It’s going to be like someone stealing from your restaurant – they’re going to have to go! It’s a small group, only 225 people, which is great because we’re going to do an opening ceremony with the whole group. We’re going to sit down everyone in one place and have a moment to create community, give everyone the rules and let them know that if someone disrespects the rules, they’re going to be removed. People break rules sometimes, it’s the nature of this world. That’s what we have security for. In My Elements will group small, disparate crews in a single cabin. What impact will these measures have on maintaining safety protocols?

Monkiewicz: We’re at 40% capacity for the grounds, all cabins and buildings will be limited to 50% capacity at all times, and all attendees will be entering the retreat with a negative COVID-19 test result before they leave their home areas. The first event is a template for more to come. While I know there’s a spike in COVID-19 right now in different areas, we are going to be uber careful, beyond the testing too. What do you hope to achieve with In My Elements?

Monkiewicz: We have a three-phase plan. Right now, the event is super limited. You have to pay an extra $147 to come. Not everybody can afford that. I hate even asking people to pay that, given so many people are out of work.

But, what we want to show is that with doing this, hopefully, the next phase is that testing is free for all. Or, if you have to pay, the cost is coming down. Our goal is to be able to do larger things—our fall festival is in late September—and we want to be able to have potentially more retreats. Whether it’s a weekend away or any other event like Halloween or New Years, we want to show that testing works.

The price of testing will come down. It’s becoming free, we’ve seen some states offering it for free finally. We just want the whole United States to offer free testing for everyone, every week, no questions asked. If we can get that done, from every doctor I’ve spoken with—coupled with other measures like contact tracing—that’s the way forward.

Another goal is getting jobs back, bringing joy back into people’s lives in music, art, and community. We’re going to start small and keep pushing, start campaigning governments to do what we’re doing for our events.

It’s funny. We’ve been growing, and keep growing. We started doing events 11 years ago with 200 people in Brooklyn. Then it grew into 6000 people warehouse parties, then 10,000 person outdoor events. Now we’re coming full circle back to 200 person things!

I’m really excited to take people on that journey where you can bring everyone together. With this three-day event, there’s only one thing going on at a time. There aren’t 20 things like a normal festival. I think it’s going to be fun. Having processions, camp-fires, and beautiful, small things like getting everyone together on top of a hill for sunset and serving tea.

Herman: Also, this is a work in progress, and can provide a framework for larger events, slowly but surely. The reason we wanted to do this is to learn by doing and making it happen on a small scale. We’re excited for the journey!