K-pop fans overcome Covid-19 fears and precautions to see their idols live

Ateez before performing at Wembley Arena in London during their European tour. K-pop bands are back on the road and their fans are buzzing.
PHOTO: Reuters

The world shifted when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down countries in March 2020. K-pop acts that were touring internationally suddenly found themselves grounded, with dates put on temporary if not indefinite hold. It would be another two years before anyone could hit the road again.

And pick up touring they have: Every week brings another announcement of a K-pop group or two revealing tour dates, usually for shows in Japan and the US, with a handful in Europe.

The pandemic moved concerts online, and brought in many new Covid-era fans. Now that concerts are back in full swing in many regions, these new fans are getting the chance to go to their first live K-pop shows. It's an exciting experience, but for some, it's tinged with concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

MJ Fisher, a 30-year-old living in Florida, knows that feeling only too well. Before the pandemic, they had only casually listened to K-pop because of friends who were fans of the genre. Now a fan, they mostly follow boy bands like NCT, Seventeen, Shinee and Ateez.

NCT 127 is seen posing for a picture with their fans in the background after performing for their 2nd Tour, Neo City: Seoul — The Link, last year.
PHOTO: Instagram/Nct127

"Once I realised I could correctly identify all 23 members of NCT, I knew I had got in way too deep," Fisher says with a laugh. "When [a K-pop-loving] friend realised how deep into K-pop I was, she seized the opportunity to try to convince me to go to a concert with her. I am not a concert person, and she is, so this was a great delight to her."

Seeing Ateez live in January was thrilling, but also fraught with nerves for Fisher. "I was really nervous about catching [Covid-19] there, obviously, and I had two exposure scares leading up to the date, so I worried that I wouldn't be able to go after all," they recall.

"My test was negative, so I went and had a blast. It was amazing to be going out and doing something for the first time in literally years, even with the constant health anxiety.

"I debated a lot about going to the Atlanta Ateez concert," they add. "It felt wildly irresponsible to go, and I'd managed to last two years without doing anything wildly irresponsible. When my friend and I bought the tickets, it was during a downturn in cases, which is part of why I decided to go.

"Of course, the case count shot up again right before the concert, which made me scared. But the money had already been spent, so I weighed the likely risks against the likely rewards and decided to do it. No matter how I feel about it, the concerts are going to happen."

Fisher is planning on seeing Stray Kids when they tour the US in July, and attending KCON Los Angeles in August — pandemic permitting.

Stray Kids performing on their Maniac world tour. The tour will visit 10 Japanese and US cities before late July.
PHOTO: Instagram/Realstraykids

"After overcoming my nerves at that first concert, I feel less scared about possibly going to others. But I'm still taking every precaution I can. I just hope that everyone around me is doing the same."

Marc Boas also attended an Ateez concert recently in the Netherlands. Primarily a NCT fan, the 25-year-old is eager to go to K-pop and Korean hip-hop gigs in Europe this year. He says NCT provided comfort and escape for him in a time that was stressful and lonely in many ways.

"Why exactly they have been comforting, I can't exactly put my finger on," Boas says, adding it could be a combination of things.

"I didn't even like the music that much at first, but they were like a new mystery to unravel. Their looks were unique, their features refreshing. The attraction is not just their looks though: their humour, their comfortableness around each other and emotional [and] physical affection. These were all very welcome things to be able to consume in a time of social distancing and having to work a lot."

Fans queue for merchandise at BTS' Permission to Dance concerts in Las Vegas in April 2022.
PHOTO: Hybe Corp

He's planning on going to see Eric Nam in June, and DPR in November. But he's seeing Ateez first.

"I am going to my first K-pop concert as I managed to secure a ticket for Ateez at the last minute!" He says ahead of the band's Warsaw show in April.

"I'm kind of stressed, not gonna lie. First of all, it feels quite surreal. I've seen and interacted with so much K-pop content and saved countless photos and clips on my phone. To think that I'll actually get to take my own picture of some of them tomorrow is wild."

"I am more confident to go to concerts now [as] I am fully vaccinated and it is time to get life back on track," said Judith Garcia, BTS fan.

Boas knows there's still a pandemic out there, but as restrictions have been lifted in much of Europe, it's becoming normal to attend shows again.

"I've been to one other concert since the restrictions have all but disappeared in the Netherlands. I expected it to be odd, but to be honest the moment I got in the queue, it felt like the most normal thing again. Being fully vaccinated, I guess you could say I feel pretty normal towards concerts again."

Now he's just waiting for NCT to tour.

Twice posing for a picture after their Tokyo Dome concert.
PHOTO: Instagram/Twicetagram

Judith Garcia, who lives in California and is fully vaccinated, is also looking forward to attending live concerts again. The 40-something became a BTS and Tomorrow X Together fan in 2021.

She was a big K-drama fan and discovered that one of her favourite actors, Park Seo-joon, is close friends with BTS's Kim Tae-hyung, also known by his stage name V. After hearing some BTS songs, she became hooked.

While she enjoyed their online Sowoozo concert in 2021, it was BTS' Permission to Dance concerts in Los Angeles that proved a big moment for her.

"I feel so happy to be able to attend shows now. I am more confident to go to concerts now [as] I am fully vaccinated and it is time to get life back on track. I still wear a mask if I feel I need it. I am ready and so happy that everything is back on track."

Monsta X are also on tour. 
PHOTO: Instagram/Official_monsta_x

But does wearing a mask take the fun away when attending these live events with thousands in attendance?

Not for Shari Elliott. The 47-year-old BTS fan from Utah went to concerts during both the boy band's Los Angeles and Las Vegas shows in 2021 and this year. Going to the second night of BTS' LA leg alone, she says she was excited and emotional.

"I have always loved concerts. It was hard during the pandemic to not have any to go to," she says.

Ateez are back on the road.
PHOTO: KQ Entertainment

"The pandemic did not concern me at all [during the show]. I feel they did a good job with precautions and I did not mind wearing a mask the whole concert, even with my glasses continually fogging up, and frankly, [I] was willing to risk getting Covid to be able to see them."

Alex Stanek, who became a K-pop fan during the pandemic, threw caution to the wind when he flew to the New York area to see Twice perform in February.

It was, he admits, a bit odd to attend a concert as Omicron was still affecting the US and much of the world. "It was definitely strange," says the 34-year-old from Ohio. "Everyone was wearing a mask since it was mandated in New York, but even with masks on, it was still odd being in a jam-packed indoor arena with thousands and thousands of strangers.

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"Once the music started, however, I forgot about all of that and just enjoyed the show. It was honestly a blast. The vibe was unlike anything I've ever experienced at a show before.

"Seeing so many people waving light sticks, happily singing along, and just having an amazing time was such an incredible experience after the past two years. My friends all think I'm crazy, but I honestly had the best time, and can't wait for the next Twice world tour."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.