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Burning Man Canceled: 'Relief' As Burners, Locals See Bright Side Of Informal Events

The pandemic has once again felled Burning Man. Some burners still plan to gather for informal events on the dusty Black Rock Desert Playa this summer.
Bernard Friel
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The pandemic has once again felled Burning Man. Some burners still plan to gather for informal events on the dusty Black Rock Desert Playa this summer.

And so it goes: Burning Man 2021 is canceled. It's the second year in a row that the popular arts festival won't be held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert due to the pandemic.

"We have decided to set our sights on Black Rock City 2022," event officials announced in ablog post on Tuesday. In a frequently-asked-questions section,organizers added: "We've heard from many who don't feel ready to come to Black Rock City. While we're confident in our ability to get a permit and to safeguard public health, we know that co-creating Black Rock City in 2021 would put tremendous strain on our community while we are still ironing out uncertainty."

Some would-be attendees praised the decision in comments on the Burning Man website and on social media as a safe one; others anticipate a bigger and better 2022 Burn.

But the cancellation has put many people in the event's host community at ease.

Wary of a trend of rising coronavirus cases in some parts of the region, Washoe County's district health officer Kevin Dick said "the right call was made," in order to lower the risk of spreading infection.

"The event draws thousands of people from all over the world," Dick said in an email. "We are seeing large outbreaks of COVID-19 occurring in a number of countries, areas where very contagious COVID-19 variants of concern are prevalent and where low rates of vaccination are occurring."

The head of a local Paiute tribe is also feeling less burdened knowing there won't be the annual pilgrimage. The main highway to get to the Black Rock Desert playa, which normally draws tens of thousands of people to the summer event, cuts through tribal lands.

"For us it is a sigh of relief," said Janet Davis, chairwoman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

Although the event — which brings in about $63 million to the state annually — gives the tribal community a welcome financial boost, Davis said, "We don't know who's vaccinated and who's not."

"We've been trying to keep our reservation safe and that happening was too soon for us to open."

As with last year, the organization will offer virtual programming during Burn Week, from Aug. 29 through Sept. 7, an experience they say drew 165,000 participants in 2020.

In response to a request for more details on the reasons for the cancellation, Burning Man organizers declined to comment further. Earlier this month, though, CEO Marian Goodell said the organization was "weighing the gravity" of implementing a vaccination requirement that she said challenged "radical inclusion," one of the group's 10 principles.

Still, for many burners, the news won't extinguish their plans to trek to the desert in droves. Just like last year, revelers are preparing to hold unofficial gatherings on public land in place of the annual event.

Last summer, those events — the so-called "rogue" and "free" burns or, unmistakably, "Not Burning Man" — drew an estimated 3,000 people to Black Rock Desert during the time Burning Man is normally held, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that approves the organization's permits each year.

Kevin Jervis, one such attendee who now lives in Gerlach — a tiny desert town near the event site — welcomed this year's cancellation.

He called it "more of a relief than anything," adding, "a lot of us liked it better the way it happened last year."

During the informal festivities, Jervis spent a few days between the playa and its outskirts. He said he and his fellow burners felt like it represented the festival's freewheeling roots.

"I've had friends that have been going since '94 and they said it was a lot more like it used to be. We didn't have to go by regulations," he said. "We could have guns, dogs ... it was a lot freer."

Even before the pandemic, burners increasingly saw an annual gathering under siege.

Event-goers who adhere to Burning Man's counterculture beginnings say the festival's explosion in popularityin the past decade has welcomed a host of bad actors who trash the desert and surrounding communities and disregard the event's founding principles, including "decommodification" and the eco-friendly philosophy of "leave no trace."

Some of those perceived threats come from festival officials themselves, he said. A ticket to the main event alone cost over $400 in 2019 — a financial hurdle critics say goes against another tenet long espoused, that "everyone is invited."

"People that have never been before came out last year because they either couldn't get a ticket other years or they were just kind of curious. Or they didn't have the money to go to the actual Burn," said Jervis.

As for the Pyramid Lake Paiute community, with the reservation largely closed during that period last year, Davis said, "we really didn't see the impact" from a public health standpoint.

"You're not talking about 65 — 75,000 people." While there was more traffic, she said, "they moseyed on through and moseyed on out."

Prior to the pandemic, BLM had been cracking down on the event's growth. Were the festival to return this year, Burning Man organizers said they would have had to meet a population cap of 69,000, down from its 80,000 limit for previous events.

Jervis says he won't miss what he describes as organizers' leniency toward "elites" who set up VIP areas at their camps and hire out to construct their art creations instead of making their own.

"A lot of people have gotten sick of what Burning Man's kind of become," he said.

Even if this year was a go, he said, burners would still be setting up their own Burning Man-adjacent happenings.

Following the announcement of the event's cancellation, people are taking to Facebook groups to reminisce about last year's unsanctioned burns and discuss preparations for their own this summer.

"So it seems that as of today there isn't going to be an official [Burning Man Ceremony] this year," James Zatopa wrote. "So who's joining me in the dust?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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