Behind the Weeknd’s Halftime Present: Nasal Swabs and Backup Plans

With the Weeknd leading the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday, the stage is in the stands rather than on the field to make the transition from game to performance easier. In the days leading up to the event, workers visited a tent in front of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida for nasal swabs for Covid-19 testing. And even though a smaller crew is putting on the show this year, the bathroom trailers got three times as much water as usual – because of all the hand washing.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the gigantic logistical undertaking that is the halftime show has gotten even more complicated.

In a typical year, a huge stage is rolled out in pieces onto the soccer field, sound and lighting equipment is quickly set up by hundreds of stage workers working shoulder to shoulder, and fans flock to the lawn to watch the extravaganza. This year there is a limit to how many people can participate in production. A tight crowd of cheering fans is out of the question. And only about 1,050 people are expected to work to put the show on, a fraction of the workforce in most years.

The pandemic has halted live performances across much of the country and many television spectacles have resorted to pre-made segments to ensure the safety of the performers and the audience. However, the halftime show’s production team was keen to put on a live performance at the stadium that they hoped would delight the television audience. To make that dream come true, they would need contingency plans, thousands of KN95 masks, and a willingness to break out of the decades-long tradition of halftime shows.

“It’s going to be a different looking show, but it’s still going to be a live show,” said Jana Fleishman, executive vice president at Roc Nation, the Jay-Z-founded entertainment company that was tapped by the NFL in 2019 to create performances for Marquee games like the Super Bowl. “It’s a whole new way of doing anything.”

One of the first logistical puzzles was figuring out how to pick up employees from the airport and move them to and from the hotel, said Dave Meyers, the show’s production manager and chief operating officer at Diversified Production Services, an event-based production company in New Jersey working on the halftime show.

“Usually you pack everyone in a van, throw your bags in your back, everyone sits on the other’s lap,” said Meyers. “That can’t happen.”

Instead, they rented more than 300 cars to keep everyone safe.

Many of the company’s employees have been in Tampa for weeks, working on so-called “grounds” outside of Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The site includes 50-foot-long office trailers that used to house around 20 employees each, but now there are only six. There are socially distant dining tents where people eat packaged food and a signal that tables have been refurbished for: those with chairs tilted against them.

Outside the event area, there is a tent where employees from the halftime show received Covid-19 tests. Staff were tested every 48 hours, but now that game day is near, key staff, including those around the performers, are being tested every day, Meyers said. Every day, employees complete a health screening on their smartphones. When they are deleted, they will be given a color-coded bracelet with a new color so that no one can wear yesterday’s undiscovered.

Every time workers enter the stadium or a new area of ​​the site, they scan an ID that is around their neck so the NFL knows who else is being tested for Covid-19 or needs to be quarantined was near them. And there are contingency plans in place if workers need to be quarantined: key employees, including Meyers, have second appointments ready to take their places.

All of these measures are being put in place so that the Weeknd can take to the stage on Sunday to play a 12-minute act designed to rival previous years when the country was not in the middle of a global health crisis.

“Our biggest challenge is to make this show look like it’s not being affected by Covid,” Meyers said.

The challenge became apparent on Thursday at a press conference on the halftime show. When the weekend went to the microphone, he walked into the room and noticed, “It’s kind of empty.” His words may have been a preview of what the stadium might look like for people watching from home. (About 25,000 fans will be in attendance – just over a third of its capacity – and thousands of cardboard cutouts will be added.)

But the Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye), a 30-year-old Canadian pop star with hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Starboy”, is known for its theatrical flair. There is often a brooding feel to his work, an avant-garde side, and even some blood and gore (he promised to keep the “PG” halftime show).

This is the second Super Bowl halftime show, produced in part by Jay-Z and Roc Nation, who were recruited by the NFL at a time when the cast refused to work with the league, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

The NFL and Roc Nation are silent on the details of the program to build anticipation. It’s unclear, therefore, if it will have the usual big-budget effects of past halftime shows where Jennifer Lopez dances on a giant rotating pole, Katy, Perry rides an animatronic lion and Diana Ross, memorable, gets out in the helicopter.

What is clear is that there will hardly be an intimate moment that Lady Gaga had with some of her fans during her 2017 performance when she folded her hands and hugged one of them before going back on stage for “Bad Romance”. The Weeknd takes the stage in a much more distant world.

Ken Belson contributed to the coverage.

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