Bringing Science to Event Production: Meet Our COVID-19 Task Force

The Black Rock City COVID-19 Task Force members are experts in epidemiology, pre-hospital care and transport, hospital care and treatment, and public health. They are from within the Burning Man community and volunteer with the BRC Emergency Services Department (ESD). You can read more about the Task Force here.


Since February 2020, Burning Man Project has been learning, along with the rest of the world, about COVID-19. As the global health crisis grew more serious and we were unable to build Black Rock City in the Nevada desert in August 2020, our medical experts in the Emergency Services Department (ESD) began formally tracking new data and trying to understand how evolving conditions could impact our future.

Last fall, ESD Chief Kate Gonnella, R.N., B.A.F.O., established Burning Man Project’s COVID-19 Task Force to tap into the broad expertise in her department and help manage the flow of information from the scientific world into our operational and organizational planning. You can meet each of our COVID-19 Task Force members and learn about the expertise they bring to the table on our COVID-19 Task Force page.

The mission of the Task Force is to review the latest science, medical knowledge, and policy to make the best and safest recommendations to Burning Man Project about Black Rock City in 2021 and beyond. The Task Force meets regularly, and is in close conversation with the Black Rock City Operations teams, to evaluate the latest updates from scientists and public health authorities, to understand operational implications, and to minimize risk. The Task Force has teamed up with our Technology Department to vet solutions that could help us confirm possible new requirements for 2021, such as vaccination or testing status. It’s a mighty task for sure, and this team is up to the challenge.

Burning Man Project’s Government Affairs Department, led by Director Marnee Benson, is working together with Nevada state and local health officials, event producers, and Governor Sisolak’s COVID-19 Task Force to explore what will be needed to safely and responsibly return large-scale outdoor events to Nevada in 2021. These unique events are an essential part of the vibrant cultural fabric of Nevada.

Collaborators include leaders from the following events:

  • Burning Man in Black Rock City
  • Electric Daisy Carnival
  • Hot August Nights
  • National Championship Air Races
  • Night in the Country
  • Reno River Festival
  • Reno Rodeo
  • The Great Reno Balloon Race
  • The Mint 400

The approach is collaborative and inclusive, a model we believe to be especially important and innovative right now, and one that will continue to be relevant after the pandemic abates.

“The teams involved are relying on science and subject matter experts to guide and inform the process, and we are fortunate to have access to a broad network of experts and professionals throughout and beyond the Burning Man community,” said Gonnella.

Burning Man Project is grateful for the opportunity to work side by side with our outdoor event colleagues in Nevada and to support the State of Nevada. This collaborative work has received bipartisan encouragement and support from elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels.

Burning Man Project is committed to public health and safety, and to sharing important information with the public. We want you to know that we’re listening; we hear and share your concerns about the safety of a 2021 event, and we acknowledge that the determination of whether or not Black Rock City can be built this year depends on more than the work of the COVID-19 Task Force. We are taking a holistic look at the social and ethical considerations of producing our event, alongside the latest science. At this time, we’re by no means certain that we’ll be able to return to the playa in 2021, but we want you to know we’re proactively engaging with experts across many fields to understand the evolving circumstances related to the virus, so we can make informed decisions about whether traveling to Nevada and living in Black Rock City can be done safely.

The wellbeing of our community, our neighboring Nevada communities, participants, staff and volunteers are top of mind as we make any decisions about a potential event in 2021 and beyond. And while there are currently many unknowns, this is certain: we will not proceed with an in-person event if it cannot be done safely.


Header image provided by Kate Gonnella

About the author: Burning Man Project

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man Project's Communications Team.

47 Comments on “Bringing Science to Event Production: Meet Our COVID-19 Task Force

  • Medic10 says:

    What a great asset to our community. I am so proud of the due diligence of the entire BMP team. As has been shown by the entire community, we are very diverse and knowledgeable. Thank you for all the hard work behind the scene over the year.

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  • Dustin Fasman says:

    I will do whatever Kate tells me to

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  • Sad Volunteer says:

    Really disappointed to see the racist and ignorant comments here. This is a major reason I’m extremely hesitant and leaning toward not attending as a volunteer even if vaccinations are widely available. Burning Man is a really diverse event when it comes to alternative science, science deniers, and flat-out kooks. Without a way to screen for those who would put the health of others at risk, I’d rather not go.

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  • Dusk says:

    Thank you BMP. I’m grateful for your diligence.

    One component that would be important to see is, if BRC does happen, what research and models were made to determine that the well-being of year-round residents in Nixon, Empire, Gerlach, etc. (especially Pauite people and seniors) will not be compromised.

    Thx again!

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    • Noodle berry says:

      This! Thank you! The Paiute tribe and other local residents simply don’t have a lot of medical resources. It would be good if Burning Man gave them resources (supplies, other), and communicated with them to see if they agree with an event.

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      • Mary says:

        At the same time organizers can teach them how to make fire.

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      • Mango says:

        Agreed. They may rely on the money generated by BRC, but make themselves more vulnerable to Covid-19 by having such an influx of people. Being a remote community, they don’t have the same medical or financial resources to deal with everyone descending on them and making their community sick when they would otherwise have low infection rates due to being remote & less populated. To any others who might follow with snarky comments, this is NOT to say they are ignorant or anything of the like, but to say we have a responsibility for how we affect this rural population. We should be an asset, not a harm.

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    • Eagle Eye says:

      Is there a way we can help the locals, especially the Paiute tribes, get all the vaccinations they need before the event?

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      • Mansoon says:

        The Paiutes and other locals have already been getting vaccinated for 8 weeks now. If if anyone here had bothered to Google it, they wouldn’t even have to ask. They lifted their lockdowns and restrictions on visitors back at the start of November, and they started getting vaccinations on Dec. 30. I think it’s pretty strange, that after 30 years in the area, any number of properties including an office and two ranches, people who live in the area year-round or part of the time, giving free or low-cost ticket to locals in the area, including the Paiutes, entering into yearly contracts that benefit the Paiutes and others financially, that people think the BMORG would have forgotten about them in all of this and wouldn’t have any idea how to communicate with them.
        And they’ve actually complained in the past, in news stories that are easy to Google, that they actually don’t see ENOUGH interaction with Burners that benefit them as much as they’d like financially, especially since people take things like the Burner Express and don’t patronize local businesses, even as people go to and from the site. I know the remark was made, “this is NOT to say they are ignorant or anything of the like”, but that’s exactly how you seem to be treating them. Which is why Mary made her snarky remark, which I applaud.
        You’re thinking that the Org needs to take some steps in late summer to protect people who have been aware of this virus from the very start of this pandemic, and cannot POSSIBLY have taken measures of their own, though a simple Google proves this to be false. They are lifting lockdowns, reopened stores to outsiders more than 3 months ago, making it clear via any number of modern ways they have to communicate with the outside world — including their Twitter feed — that people are welcome to come, and they are taking precautions where they feel necessary. Them doing their best to protect themselves but allow visitors IS NOT them saying “We don’t know how to stop the amount of people we wish were more from helping us financially by returning to an event that provides 50 months of revenue, in some cases (according to what the guy who used to run the Empire store has said in news articles that take seconds to find). Help us, oh, mighty BMorg! Show us the way! ”
        But seriously, they are not waiting on people who may not have much spare financial resources to protect them, maybe, half year down the line. You can Google the covid cases in the area and find out that they haven’t been untouched yet save for this event that has six months yet to happen. You can also see that cases plunging down as they are all over this country. Since there are people who have some antibodies from prior infections that had nothing to do with Burning Man, and others who’ve been getting vaccinated or practicing masking and distancing. Just like everyone everywhere else in the country.
        I’m sure the people there run the gamut but it looks like the majority of people would welcome an influx of business from people passing through, rather than waiting until late 2022, since Nevada’s greatest resource is tourists. About 20 tourists yearly for every one resident, the most lopsided ratio in the entire country far as I can tell and people coming through and spending money when they stop is what many places like that rely on far more than handouts. It’s the reason why there’s fees on many things there and why the state slapped a 9% tax on tickets to the event years ago.
        If you really want to be an asset if you go, go out of your way to patronize the locals, don’t treat them like they are children who never heard of this pandemic thing everyone’s talking about, and didn’t start to protect themselves long before you came. If the Org actually wants to help them — if infections end up where they look like they’re headed and it’s safe to have the event — they should probably make a very serious effort to make sure that people interact with and patronize more with locals, not less, because even well-meaning people may shun them out of ignorance, and maybe that’s NOT what they want. Although, if you really want to know for sure, you could pay attention to the information they put out or even ask on, say, THEIR Facebook page.
        And I know there’s people here who honestly are of good intent and maybe didn’t give these things any thought when they talk about “protecting the locals.” But the best way to learn how to help other people is to not make so many assumptions out of ignorance, because nothing I’ve stated here is any secret knowledge. It’s easily found, using whatever device you are currently on as you look at this. If you want to help people, find out what they want, especially when they are speaking and doing things publicly, and use that to ask how can you help or even if they actually want or need you to change your behavior.

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      • Dragon Nurse Christine says:

        They are a priority 1st Tier minority they should have been able to get vaccinated when they want!

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  • Anon says:

    But what are the names of the actual people? You’ve described a group but not named the individual participants?

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  • Honey Bee says:

    I expected nothing less. Bravo.

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  • Mikel says:

    So they’ve been meeting a year – what have they found out?

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    • Maud says:

      Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated. Homemade chicken soup, a couple of aspirins and don’t watch TV for a week. Read a good book and stay home from work until you’re feeling better.

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  • Some Seeing Eye says:

    Thanks for the update!

    Burning Man is a community of creatives, social sculptors, scientists, technologists, and lovers – many burners overlap those.

    I can’t think of a comparable community better equipped for the challenge!

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  • I Remain Hopeful says:

    Very thankful for this committee coming together and discussing how to ensure that an event so special and so dear to us all can happen in a responsible way.

    I’m sure that whatever strategy which our brightest souls develop will preserve the camaraderie of our Playa family while still keeping us all safe.

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  • Shaloinn'a says:

    I like the suggestion of using Gate Crew to help combat this deadly virus. Last week the CDC said that people should receive monthly vaccinations against mutations. Since more injections are better, our Gate Crew could actually vaccinate Burners before they enter our city. I’ve already been vaccinated but I would gladly accept another dosage from Gate Crew.

    Perhaps another vaccination station could be set up at Center Camp with the vaccine being administered by members of Cafe Village. We are all in this together. Stay safe!

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    • Noodle berry says:

      But vaccines need time to be effective. I’ve read people need weeks after vaccination for it to be effective. It makes vaccinations at the door ineffective at any event.

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    • Julie says:

      I guess you are assuming that Gate doesn’t already have enough to do, that Gate is staffed by medical professionals who have have access to attendee medical files, and the training to administer shots and respond to any allergic reactions (they hold people 30 minute to an hour to watch for allergic allergies) and that the vaccine works immediately, when it doesn’t – it takes 2-3 weeks after the second shot to be fully protected.

      In other words, I’m sorry but this suggestion is nonsensical

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    • Mansoon says:

      i believe that’s probably “yearly,” not “monthly” against variants. If you look at all the logistical elements and the effectiveness, seems like a “Thank you. Next!” idea.

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  • Johnny says:

    Allow me to save everyone a lot of time and energy:

    Proof of vaccination + negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival + valid 2021 ticket = gate entry

    More work for the gatekeepers, but the only way the event can take place safely.

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    • Jane says:

      What is proof of vaccination? They only gave me a card with a signature and some other info written on it. Now a blank pdf of that card is available online. Anyone could fake one.

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      • Phillip K says:

        Agreed. I have received both vaccine doses and have my card. I could bring the card and gate can feel the stickers to know it is not a copy but how do you verify the dose information is not made up? And who wants to bring their original documents into that environment? I believe Johnny is correct with what will be required, just hoping this virus and new cases are under control by then. Is the government going to demand BMORG come up with a way to verify the government numbers? How will that work? Some blind faith might be needed by all parties but is that too much a risk? I so want to get back to BRC in 2021, I miss you all. Be safe. Stay healthy. Continue best practices to avoid the virus. Get your vaccinations and I will c ya on the playa.

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      • Jane says:

        I didn’t get a sticker. What kind of a sticker did you get?

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      • Another MD says:

        Your vaccination card should have listed the lot of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine you got, along with the expiration date, the date and locale of the administration, the initials of possibly the registration person and the person who did the injection, and other data.

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      • Dragon Nurse Christine says:

        All the info on those cards has a corresponding entry into Department of Health computer data base you can petition to get this verified. Would have to be done prior to entry by volunteers working phones.

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    • Captain B says:

      RIght ON Johnny, Terrific answer! Maybe add Rapid Test 48 hours before the Burn in Reno’s monster casino parking lots, + rapid test at the gate so double the chances of accuracy. Increased ticket prices in 2021 to cover the extra costs. by Aug.1st Email and sign a legal document generated by your Doctor with your innoculation receipt. If you’re paranoid of “racists” forging a document, stay home and permit the Burning Man miracle to continue. A three year delay won’t change a thing, same issues in 2022.

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      • Mansoon says:

        Disagree. There’s so many factors wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to begin, but not the least of which is that not everyone comes through Reno. And using those parking lots isn’t necessarily free (Reno is known for wanting its money), and they can only accommodate maybe dozens extra at at a time some hundreds at a stretch, not thousands or tens of thousands that might be arriving during peak times, and they’ll have people of their own coming and going (Nevada’s done is very best to reopen up as much as possible and keep going, so if they can be going 100% by then, they definitely will be) and it’s not like BM is their government; they can’t be ordered to comply.
        Rapid test have notoriously high false positive and false negative rates, so, what is someone with a false positive test supposed to believe when they are sitting at a Reno parking lot, with a vehicle with other people in it, supposed to drive up to the gate to get a second test. Is everyone in contact not vaccinated now presumed exposed and now they can’t go either? Don’t forget, this is a false positive we’re talking about so people are being told they can’t come based on a lie. And if they take a chance and all troop up to the gate and get different results, how are they going to know what results to believe? And what happens to the people who test, and test again as positive if they’re at an event where most people already have immunities?
        And if you have a vaccination, there’s really no good reason for you to need proof of a negative covid test also. Even in a scenario where we haven’t reached herd immunity by then, anyone vaccinated is in just about zero danger of dying or getting seriously ill from anyone vaccinated or not and vice versa, unless MAYBE if you have prolonged intimate contact. And, don’t forget, the number of active cases in the US as a percentage at any one time is actually pretty small, and people are wearing masks. I think one figure I saw recently was 70,000, in a population of 330 million. That’s, what, less than a 1 in 400 chance TODAY (too lazy to more than just eyeball the math), but even less than that, because some of those people will be seriously ill and unable to travel at all, so it could be one in 800 chance, now, not 6 months from now. Not down-playing people who today or before have gotten infected/died, but if someone’s in an ICU bed or quarantined, they’re not likely traveling to Burning Man in an RV or spending days packing trucks full of stuff that are in a storage unit with a dozen campmates. So, they’re not part of any equation of people that you would be in contact with who could infect you.
        If we have a high enough percentage of people vaccinated, as most good guesses seem to indicate, most likely anyone left will be someone who’s voluntarily made the decision not to get vaccinated, and proceeding at their own risk, like anyone who didn’t get vaccinated during any flu season. But, a lot of that population will have some form of antibodies or antibody memory just from being exposed, very likely.
        And before you start thinking about this is some “it’s only like a flu” dismissive thing, don’t forget the flu is actually very deadly on a case-incidence-case and when it had its shot against a naive population (which is science speak for a population without immunities or vaccine), it killed between 50 and 100 million in a world of only about 1.8 billion people in a time before commercial aviation and easy driving between cities. And actually there’s worry that because many people didn’t get exposed this year or get vaccinated against the flu, and a lot of the manufacturers that only make flu vaccines will be making covid vaccines and not working on something for the newest strain of the flu, we might see flu deaths way above normal this fall. Hoping not, as a lot of people should probably have masks and be aware of the need to be cautious should we see an uptick in that, but I just wanted to point out a few things.

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  • SinglePly says:

    Need COVID sniffing dogs at the gate.

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  • MSN says:

    Infectious diseases are not new. If you get vaccinated you will not get symptomatic, as long as the wind blows the diseases will continue to spread. We can control our fears with evidence based research but it takes effort. PLEASE GET VACCINATED.

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  • douglas says:

    my self I could never really decide in advance what to do if something came up, prevention and planning are not my strong point. I am the one who can deal with a situation as it happens, find solutions in the moment in what is available then and there, sort of the MacGyver thing from TV. I can help Loved being part of ESD in the medical triage non contact when folk came into the medical tents for assistance. Took down names lots of wonderful names and the places people resided for a week on the Playa. Many times was able to have those seeking aid mend them selves, like triage in the field. I enjoyed the fire aspect to, all the assist in the field in the fire truck-pickup with skid munt. Stickers I have three of five stickers from station 5, the Maltese cross from 2009, 2010 and 2012 missed a couple years Wish I had them.

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  • Dust Daka says:

    Having just travelled to Maui last month, and then here to Kauai last week (where there is essentially no COVID), the actual implementation of a testing program (or vaccine confirmation program) will be the tricky part. I won’t go too much into the details right now, but even with the resources of the public health system and other assets of the State of Hawaii, it was not all that smooth. You were supposed to get a QR code confirming your test, but no one had the code readers, but then some folks could rely on you pulling up the Hawaii website with your uploaded results, but others needed a printed copy of your test. With no established vaccination database and vaccines being administered all over the place, the idea of smoothly pulling up to the gate and then rolling in with your vaccination confirmed by a new system to be set up by BMORG just doesn’t feel all that likely.

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  • Amy Kanigher says:

    Amazing and thoughtful crew! Looking forward to the ideas and creative steps we take as a community- we’ll get through this friends!

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  • MD lost in the dust says:

    I looked at the list of experts working on this problem–I commend them all. I thought that Larry Brilliant PhD, among others, was also working on this problem for the Org?

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  • Cathy West says:

    “When it’s safe” means never. “Better safe than sorry.” If there’s a .00000001 percent chance that anyone could get the virus the event will be cancelled. The best option would be to let each person decide to attend or not but that option won’t fly cause the safety people know what’s best for you.

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    • Mansoon says:

      That . 00000001 (or 1 in 100,000,000?) standard might not be realistic. Ahem. You probably couldn’t even let people drive from as far as Gerlach with those standards

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  • January says:

    As a mom with a veteran burner child under 16, rapid test at the gate might be something reserved for those that are currently prohibited from getting vaccines at this stage in the trials. Perhaps that will change by August. Crossed fingers. Otherwise Burning Man might not be a family event this year.

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