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The CMAs took place in a bizarre alternate reality where coronavirus doesn't exist

Staging the 2020 Country Music Association Awards in-person at an indoor venue in Nashville last night was a weird flex, to say the least. Third wave of COVID-19 be damned, the CMAs seemed hell-bent on pretending that everything is hunky-dory in America. When the pandemic was mentioned, it was often as a joke. People were extremely lax about masks and social-distancing. While everyone involved in the awards show was evidently tested for the virus repeatedly, the whole spectacle felt deeply irresponsible at a time when convincing people to take the pandemic seriously is truly a matter of life or death.

Co-host Reba McEntire inadvertently set the tone for the evening when she accidentally coughed on camera and quipped, “Not a good time to do that, is it?” I mean, when you’ve got coronavirus-deniers going around coughing on people as a threat, no, it’s not an ideal time to joke about expelling respiratory droplets on your fellow country music stars.

Even before the CMAs kicked off on Wednesday night, the awards show was dogged with pandemic-related problems. A slew of performers had to cancel appearances last minute, because they either tested positive for the virus or were in close contact with someone who had. In the days leading up to the show, Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard both had to bow out of the broadcast due to COVID-19 diagnoses. (Hubbard is, amusingly, quarantining away from his family in his tour bus in his driveway.)

Just an hour prior to the CMAs, the band Lady A cancelled their scheduled performance, because a family member contracted the virus. Thirty minutes into the show, Rascal Flatts announced on Instagram they weren’t attending either, because someone in the band was sick. Fiddle player Jenee Fleenor also fell ill and was forced to call off her appearance.

One artist who was able to attend, Morgan Wallen, found himself in hot water earlier this fall when he was booted from Saturday Night Live for breaking COVID-19 protocol and partying without a mask. He took home the New Artist of the Year award last night, and during the broadcast, co-host Darius Rucker joked, “For your safety, I’ve had Morgan Wallen quarantined in my dressing room for two weeks now.”

The CMAs stoked ire last week for promoting the three-hour event as a “no-drama zone,” evidently encouraging artists to keep their statements and performances apolitical in the wake of the 2020 election and Trump’s subsequent refusal to concede.

Notably, after the race was called for Joe Biden and people took to the streets in mass celebration, Wallen complained on his Instagram Story: “If it’s okay for us to party in the streets with no ‘social distancing’ then we can book shows right now.” Erm, not exactly. Like this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which weren’t found to cause a COVID-19 spike, last weekend’s revelry was largely outdoors, where the risk of exposure is much lower than at an indoor awards show, for example.

The CMAs were adamant they followed health and safety protocols to the hilt while planning last night’s revelry. And it’s true they did multiple rounds of testing for all guests, performers, and crew. Tables were spread throughout the ballroom eight feet apart, and masks were supposedly required — though lots of attendees walked around with bizarre face shields on a stick, which looked like dystopian Mardi Gras masks and seemed unlikely to offer any quantifiable protection.

But no matter how many safety measures were put in place to keep the stars of country music healthy, the optics of the awards show were frankly irresponsible. People are tired of the pandemic and desperate for normalcy, and it’s going to be really hard to navigate the holiday season without gathering together. Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases in Nashville, like most of the nation, is exploding. The last thing America needs right now is celebrities cosplaying normalcy.