CMA Awards: Unmasked, Indoor Ceremony Raises Questions About COVID-19 Precautions, Producers Cite 'Extremely Diligent' Measures

Despite the near-absence of on-camera masks during the 54th CMA Awards ceremony Wednesday, the Country Music Association maintains that it was “extremely diligent” in making sure that the indoor ceremony, performed before a live audience, was held in a safe manner.

Darius Rucker and Reba McEntire hosted the ceremony, which was broadcast on ABC live from Music City Center in downtown Nashville, Tenn. A fraction of the usual number of attendees were in the audience, and they were seated at tables and banquettes that were spaced apart from each other throughout the indoor venue. During the evening, several attendees appeared to have clear, plastic face shields on the tables in front of them, but they were not wearing or using them during crowd shots. Press PLAY on the video below to see. 

A rep for the Country Music Association, which produces the ceremony, tells TVLine that “every single person” entering the venue — including crew, staff and artists — were tested for the coronavirus, and some were tested repeatedly in the week leading up to the ceremony “as an extra measure of caution.” The rep also noted the use of personal protective equipment and social and physical distancing; the tables in the audience were spaced eight feet apart, with no more than four attendees at any table.

In addition, guests were not allowed to mill about during commercial breaks, and apart from when they were sitting at their assigned tables, audience members were required to wear masks in the venue.

“Of course, we are thrilled to be bringing the country music community together tonight, however, our Number 1 priority has been and will continue to be the safety of our artists, our crew and our staff,” the rep added.

Hours before the show, Lady A announced via Instagram that they would not take part in the awards show as planned because “one of our immediate family members has just tested positive for COVID-19 this week.” Though the post assured fans that band members Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood had tested negative, “out of caution and love for everyone involved with the CMAs, we’ve decided to stay home from the awards tonight.”

Lady A was slated to perform with Rucker, and Scott was scheduled to sing with Thomas Rhett and other artists. Prior to the positive result, Kelley taped a performance with Carly Pearce; he was a replacement for Lee Brice, who had to drop out after his own positive coronavirus test days earlier.

After the broadcast began, Rascal Flats, another band that was supposed to perform during the ceremony, announced via social media that one of its members had tested positive and therefore they would not be in attendance.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has refused to enact a statewide mask mandate; instead, he has left the decision to the state’s counties. Davidson County, where Nashville is located, had a mask mandate in place until Oct. 30. That mandate has since been extended. A recent study out of Vanderbilt University reports that COVID-19 death rates are significantly elevated in counties that do not have a mask mandate.

Per the Tennessean, nearly 30 of Tennessee’s 95 counties recently reported COVID-positive rates of at least 15 percent, which puts it over the “red zone” threshold the White House determined earlier this year.

Since the global pandemic spread to the United States earlier this year, televised awards shows have gone audience-free (the Emmys), taken the ceremony outside (MTV’s Video Music Awards) or split the performances among several venues (the Academy of Country Music’s ACM Awards). At the ACM Awards, which also took place in Nashville, several artists wore their masks on stage, removing them only to give their acceptance speeches.

At one point during Wednesday’s ceremony, McEntire coughed while introducing a performer. “Excuse me,” she said. “Not a good time to do that, is it?”

The crowd laughed heartily.

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