Every year, Americans cap off the summer with a collective mini-vacation called Labor Day — an event marked with barbecues, trips to the beach, catching a ballgame and pretty much doing as little labor as humanly possible. It’s something of a unique entity, insofar as it’s the only holiday considered best celebrated by strenuously avoiding the thing actually being celebrated.
But like almost everything else that’s happened since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, Labor Day 2020 will be something of an oddity even by its own unusual standards. This Labor Day will come and go without parades, hot dog eating contests at the beach or various other local festivals. They’ve been called off as too likely to draw large and uncontrollable crowds.
Home barbecues will likely go on, albeit with social distancing in place to prevent COVID-19’s spread. And almost everyone will still get a long weekend off, although how noticeable than will be for work-from-home employees who’ve long since lost track of what day it is remains to be seen.
But we come this week not to bemoan the losses of Labor Day 2020, but to praise the innovators who’ve worked overtime to keep at least some of the holiday’s events going — albeit in digital form.
For example, the Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday (Sept. 5) for the 146th time this weekend after being postponed from its normal May. However, the new date won’t be the only thing different about the derby this year.
Instead of a packed house at Churchill Downs dressed in suits, dresses and hats fancy enough for an English royal wedding, the racetrack will be fan-free. It will only host socially distanced jockeys and enough track personnel to actually run the race.
Going to the race as a spectator isn’t an option — but in the COVID-19 era, if you can’t go to the race, the race will come to you. Fans can watch via NBC TV or one of the various streaming services one might have chosen to replace cable.
NBC’s app and Web site will also carry the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” although the network doesn’t just want you to see the race, it wants to help a socially distanced home audience actually experience the event.
That’s why NBC Sports’ Rutledge Wood will be hosting a virtual watch party from his home. The event is proving popular enough that the online registration to party with Wood has actually filled up.
And for those who want to have their own derby party, NBC Sports has released a “Kentucky Derby at Home Party Pack” for downloading. By NBC’s description, the pack contains “recipes for traditional Kentucky Derby foods and cocktails, printable decorations, at-home fashion tips, kids’ crafts and more.”
But there are those who may be thinking, “Learning how to make a mint julep or getting fashion tips from sportscasters on how to work a Kentucky Derby fascinator into my end-of-summer look sound great, but I’m just not that into horse racing.”
Well, good news — we have other iconic options for you that are happening virtually this weekend.
For those who prefer dragons to horses, there’s “Dragon Con.”
What, you ask, is Dragon Con? Well in a normal year, it’s Greater Atlanta’s annual answer to San Diego’s Comic-Con, a gathering of fantasy and science-fiction enthusiasts.
Dragon Con usually includes celebrity appearances, panels on upcoming media projects and a public venue where it’s not only considered acceptable to be dressed in a full set of chain-mail body armor, it’s highly encouraged. But this year, the costumed mingling is on hold because Dragon Con is going online — creatively renamed “Dragon Con Goes Virtual.”
Running on three streamed channels, the event will feature the ability to catch greatest-hits moments of conventions past or watch exclusive content created for this year’s event. There will also be live panels, online social mingling and even the annual costume competition (with attendees taking part from the comfort of their living rooms).
And yes, the merchandising experience has made the digital jump with the rest of the festival. There will be a Virtual Vendors Marketplace, art show and Comic and Pop Artist Alley. Dragon Con is promising attendees a six-day, around-the-clock shopping experience “with our amazing vendors and artists” — and the first “infinite-aisle” shopping experience the convention has ever presented.
But what if dressing up like a Star Wars stormtrooper to play virtual Dungeons and Dragons (one of the advertised events) with sci-fi and fantasy fans worldwide isn’t enough of a draw for you? Well, we’ve saved the weekend’s best and biggest digital event for last — Burning Man.
The annual trip out to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the world’s cool, trendy, technologically sophisticated and truly dedicated party animals has been called off this year, replaced by Burning Man’s online version. There will be eight online "multiverses" meant to give fans (known as “Burners”) a chance to experience Burning Man minus the desert experience.
How’s the weeklong event (which runs through Sunday) going so far? Well, according to one Mashable reviewer, “the experiences were designed by volunteer Burners themselves, so it is no slight to the org to say that many of these multiverses are a mess. The Ethereal Empyrean Experience crashed my computer. The app page for Multiverse IIR is full of reviews from Burners who paid $8 to enter but couldn't get it to work. (Some multiverses are free, others cost a few bucks.) The Infinite Playa's paid experience is still coming soon’ at time of writing, halfway through the official event week.”
But the same reviewer also wrote that the overall experience is “fun as hell,” particularly for someone wearing a virtual-reality headset. Apparently, hugging another Burner’s digital avatar is incredibly cathartic, and bringing VR capability to Burning Man does in fact create new experiences one has never been able to enjoy before.
“I’ve had the experience of waiting for a friend to join me at the Man many times before, but I've never done so 60 feet in the air while chatting to a random dude from the Netherlands,” the Mashable writer noted.
But some Burners aren’t buying into the virtual experience and are heading by the hundreds to the Black Rock Desert itself to celebrate Burning Man in their RVs.
What exactly they plan to do without the people, art exhibits, foam parties or giant Burning Man effigy is a bit unclear. But whatever it is, those interview by local media confirmed they’d stay some 6 feet apart to prevent COVID-19.
“It’s a socially distant ‘burn’ this year, and everybody is really spread out across the desert,” attendee Mike Fowler told local media. The Burners say they plan to leave after Labor Day weekend and that they will leave no trace behind, as is the Burning Man tradition.
As for the virtual Burners, will this be their new tradition? That seems doubtful.
Most reviews have branded the multiverse concept as fun and highly reviewed certain parts of it, like the VR journeys or the beautifully designed “Temple” setting for congregation among burners. But many have noted that it still isn’t really a stand-in for experiencing the real thing live, in person and possibly on acid. Given the chance, nearly all surveyed responded they’d like to get back to the real Burning Man as soon as it’s safe to do so.
That’s the same way we imagine horse racing and dragon fans feel this weekend as they attend virtual versions of their favorite events to send off the summer. While some parts of the digital transformation will likely stick, we imagine these events might not quite be among them as replacements for the real thing.
But as extensions of them instead of full-on replacements? The idea of Burning Man or comic-book conventions becoming both physical and digital events every year going forward doesn’t sound like such a fantasy-like possibility.