Correction 2: Reuters Fact Check team initially rated this claim as True, and later revised that to Partly True. After listening carefully to feedback from readers and reviewing the timeline of the Hong Kong flu pandemic that started in 1968, we are correcting this verdict to Misleading.
(Note – this fact check does not aim to compare the responses to the Hong Kong flu and the current COVID-19 outbreaks. It is strictly assessing the primary claim shared in social media posts that “Woodstock occurred in the middle of a pandemic”. It does not attempt to verify or disprove the entire content of an article with that headline that was published on the website of the American Institute for Economic Research here )
Here is our updated fact check, which replaces the earlier versions and includes a response from one of the organisers of the Woodstock festival.
Social media users have been sharing an image online that claims the popular music festival Woodstock, which took place in August 1969, happened in the middle of a pandemic. This claim is misleading.
These claims reference an article called “Woodstock occurred in the middle of a pandemic”, which appears on the website of the American Institute for Economic Research ( here ).
The claims state: “The Hong Kong Flu (H3N2) of 1968, killed 1 million worldwide, and 100,000 in the US, most excess deaths being in people 65+ (via the CDC). Nothing changed economically, nothing closed, no social distancing, no masks. No one was considered selfish then.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms those figures on its website, where it says that the disease was first noted in the United States in September 1968. (here)
It is true that the Woodstock festival fell between those dates – it took place in August 1969 at a dairy farm in upstate New York. However, a closer look at the timeline of the disease shows why it is misleading to suggest that Woodstock happened “in the middle of a pandemic”. The peak for most U.S. states was December 1968 and January 1969 (Dec 28, 1968 in New York state). See article here . The first season of the pandemic had ended in the U.S. by early March 1969 and it did not flare up again until November of that year, several months after Woodstock, as can be seen in figure 1 here . The diagram shows the pattern of the Hong Kong flu in six countries, of which only Australia was experiencing epidemic activity in August 1969.
In other words, Woodstock happened between the first and second waves in the United States of the H3N2 Hong Kong flu that emerged in 1968, but not during a peak in infections and months after the first season of the flu had ended in the U.S.
Joel Rosenman, co-producer of Woodstock, told Reuters via email:
“Woodstock was not partying in defiance of pandemic containment measures, because at the time of Woodstock, there was no pandemic, and there were no containment measures to defy. In the months following the December-January peak of the pandemic, the flu all but disappeared. By mid-‘69, any preoccupation with the virus had given way to widespread unconcern. Media coverage had dwindled to virtually zero. As far as the nation was concerned, the pandemic was in the rear-view mirror. It was during this time, not during the pandemic months of the previous winter, that my co-producers, John Roberts, Artie Kornfeld, Mike Lang and I created Woodstock—without so much as a thought about ‘pandemic.’ It wasn’t until the next flu season, several months after Woodstock, that we all found ourselves in a horrifying déjà flu.”
A New York Times article from August 17, 1969 reported that another Woodstock producer, Michael Lang, said a dozen doctors came to the festival not because of “widespread illnesses” but because of “the potential threat of a virus cold or pneumonia epidemic among such a large gathering.” ( here ) He did not mention the Hong Kong flu.
Rosenman told Reuters the doctors were there to cope with routine medical issues, given the size of the crowd. “The reality is we needed those extra doctors to deal with the increased numbers of medical issues that predictably come with an unpredictably huge turnout of half a million kids.”
Woodstock became one of the leading symbols of the 1960s counter-culture, with performances from Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Santana, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and many others. The organizers expected 30,000 people but hundreds of thousands showed up. ( here )
The death toll from the Hong Kong flu was comparable with the 1957 Asian flu pandemic that killed 1.1 million worldwide (here). As of May 12, 2020 at least 286,669 people globally had died during the current COVID-19 outbreak ( coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html ). The worst pandemic in modern history, the Spanish Influenza of 1918, is estimated to have killed at least 50 million ( here ).
Misleading. The Woodstock music festival took place months after the first season of the Hong Kong flu had ended in the United States. Although there was to be a second wave in the U.S. the following winter, it is misleading to say it happened “in the middle of a pandemic”.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .