San Francisco holds "kink festival" despite fears it'll become monkeypox superspreader event

Alain Jocard, Pool via AP

It’s hard to believe public health officials wouldn’t have been much more emphatic about shutting this down if it had involved a community to which they were less sympathetic.

The same was true two years ago with the mass protests after George Floyd’s death, when scientists who’d spent months urging the country to avoid gatherings suddenly decided that some things were more important than pandemic containment. Contrast that with the reaction to those who protested lockdowns at state capitols in the spring of 2020, who were warned that they had behaved recklessly by gathering and risking transmission to promote a cause less urgent than containing a novel virus. The same was said of bikers who insisted on attending the Sturgis rallies in August of 2020 and 2021. It wasn’t the rally itself that was dangerous, experts conceded, since much of that happens in the open air. But the partying in indoor spaces that would inevitably follow daylight activities would spread the virus. I remember Anthony Fauci worrying about it. I worried too.

It was selfish. Millions of people had done their part to try to limit the spread by postponing events that were important to them, up to and including weddings, but the Sturgis bikers and the lockdown protesters couldn’t be bothered to alter their priorities for the common good.

Neither could the George Floyd demonstrators, for that matter.

And neither could the attendees at yesterday’s Dore Alley kink festival in San Francisco, ironically the first major city to impose a draconian lockdown in the name of stopping the spread when COVID arrived in February 2020. As with Sturgis, the risk had less to do with the event proper than with the extracurriculars associated with it. You’re not going to get monkeypox strolling down a San Francisco street dressed in leather chaps. You might get it from what you do afterward, though. “I expect a lot of activity next week in terms of alerts,” said one infectious disease expert about monkeypox spreading as a result of gay men hooking up after the festival.

Supporters of the Dore Alley Fair, also known as The Up Your Alley Street Fair, admitted the event is not for everyone.

“I’m absolutely loving it. I’m not offended by the nudity and there’s a lot of it. Some of it is beautiful (but) some people may not think it’s beautiful,” said first time attendee Raymond Fronczak of San Francisco…

There are kinky games and vendors selling neck collars, whips and anything leather…

“I’m trying to keep my distance. If I get it, I’ll have deal with it and I’m not going to let it defeat me,” said attendee Chris Cashion.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation published a guide to enjoying Dore Alley without contracting monkeypox. Not included among the advice listed: Skipping the event, or at least skipping the parties afterward. Included: “See a bump on your skin and worried that it might be monkeypox? If you’re not sure, and you still want to go out tonight, cover it up with a bandaid or clothing before you go out.”

Some men are behaving responsibly. One who attended the event in years past told the East Bay Times that he’d skip it this time due to its potential to become a superspreader. “It just seems like potentially a lot of unnecessary suffering – and it’s really scary,” said another, who’s waiting until he can get the vaccine to start attending festivals like Dore Alley again. But others have the same flawed mentality about disease that Sturgis attendees had: “It’s really a point of personal risk – what risk are you willing to take? And there’s ways to mitigate the risk.”

That’s true up to a point. Monkeypox doesn’t spread like COVID does, obviously, so it’s easier to mitigate the risk of infection. Avoid physical contact with others and you’ll be fine. But most of the partying surrounding events like this is designed to, uh, facilitate physical contact. And it’s just not the case that exposure is a matter of purely “personal risk.” It’s a matter of community risk because each new infection raises the odds that the virus will become endemic. Scientists believe there’s still a chance that they can contain person-to-person transmission as the supply of vaccines here in the U.S. grows, but if the virus spills over to animals? Forget it. “Game over,” said one expert to the Daily Beast about the prospect of eradicating monkeypox if rodents pick up the virus from infected humans and create an “animal reservoir” in which it can spread freely in the wild. (Monkeypox originated with rodents in Africa.) Spreading among animals would also give it many more chances to mutate into something that can transmit more easily among humans than it does now.

In that context, holding events like Dore Alley instead of postponing them until more men can be vaccinated is callous. And for all the anxiety about gays being stigmatized during the monkeypox outbreak — which is understandable but counterproductive — public resentment will be worse once news gets around that obvious superspreader events are still happening despite the best efforts of officials to stop the virus before it turns endemic. One in five Americans are already worried about catching it despite the low risk of being infected. Imagine what it’ll be in a month or two if it continues to spread exponentially thanks to festivals.

And as for “personal risk,” it may be larger than some attendees believe. There’s simply not enough vaccine available right now to protect everyone who needs protecting and there won’t be enough for awhile.

Even with the latest shipments, there are only enough vials of the two-dose Jynneos vaccine to cover about a third of the estimated 1.6 million gay and bisexual men who officials consider at highest risk and who are being urged to get the shots.

And with cases in the United States doubling every week or so, some health experts warn a shortfall of vaccine doses could threaten the nation’s ability to contain the expanding outbreak and prevent the virus from becoming permanently entrenched — a concern that some federal officials privately concede.

“When you look mathematically at what the requirements are … we’re facing some tough sledding here,” J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on a podcast Friday, adding that 3.2 million doses would be needed to fully cover the at-risk population of HIV-positive men and others targeted to receive vaccinations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They need more than three million doses. By the end of the year, they expect to have just two million. And still, no one thought to call off Dore Alley for a year?

I’ll leave you with Scott Gottlieb’s new op-ed lamenting America’s latest public health failure. The feds should have been quick off the block with testing for suspected monkeypox cases and distribution of a large stockpile supply of vaccine, he says. They went 0 for 2.