As many Americans responsibly don face masks, distance from their families, and await the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, a group of 300 people sat tightly packed on hay bales Sunday at a Virginia farm to hear anti-vaccination activists and “ancestral health” experts offer up an alternate reality.
The event was hosted by the Weston A. Price foundation—a nonprofit “dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism,” according to its website. It was held at the Swoope, Virginia-based Polyface Farm, owned by the infamous Joel Salatin, whose own website describes him as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer.”
The size of the gathering at Polyface Farms would be ripe for condemnation anywhere during a deadly pandemic, but it was especially stunning in Swoope, which The Staunton News Leader reported had a whopping 52 percent positivity rate on Wednesday.
Swoope’s Augusta County—pop. 74,701—had a cumulative total of 938 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 11 total deaths.
In a handful of photos of the event, not a single one of the audience members appeared to be wearing a mask, and several attendees boasted about that fact online. That coronavirus skeptics or anti-vaxxers would hold such an event is not shocking but was especially remarkable as viable vaccine candidates get closer to distribution and a new administration prepares to battle a wave of disinformation.
“It was a private event on private property. Folks weren’t forced to attend. It was voluntary,” Wendy Gray, a spokesperson for the farm, told the local newspaper. “They left the social distancing and the masks up to each individual.”
No stranger to the spotlight, Salatin was featured in the hit documentary Food, Inc, and the best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma before drawing headlines for proclaiming “I want coronavirus!” earlier this year.
“I’ve been watching all the personal stories of the folks who have gotten it and the overwhelming testimony is pretty simple: a day of sniffles, another day of fatigue, then a couple of days of recovery, and life is back to normal,” Salatin wrote, misleadingly, on his personal website, Musings from the Lunatic Farmer.
He did not lack company this weekend.
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“I can’t imagine a better location, complete with hay bales and string lights, way more special than the originally intended hotel venue that canceled on them last minute!” one attendee, Emily Canterbury, posted on Instagram. (Canterbury did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast this week.) “What a joy it was to be surrounded by 300 mask free smiling faces!! As Joel said, ‘The governor can’t cross the bridge, because this is private property.’”
That quote appeared to be an allusion to Gov. Ralph Northam’s state coronavirus restrictions, since even outdoor events were subject to a 250-person capacity restriction on Sunday. As of Monday, those rules were tightened even further.
In a statement on Thursday, Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, said the state health department was “currently considering enforcement options after having been made aware of an event which appears to have been in violation of the Governor’s executive order limiting entertainment and public amusement events to no more than 250 persons.” The order also includes requirements for social distancing and face coverings, Kornegay noted.
According to several social media posts from the event, speakers included Del Bigtree, the chief executive officer of anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network; Mike Dickson, a former professional bodybuilder turned full-time farmer; Hilda Labrada Gore, an “ancestral health expert;” Sally Fallon Morell, author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats and The Contagion Myth, which her website claims was banned by Amazon; and Salatin himself.
Both Salatin and Dickson declined to comment for this story.
“I’ve reviewed numerous articles in your publication and realize it is highly prejudicial, which means you cannot be trusted with any comments,” Salatin said in an email to The Daily Beast on Wednesday. The remaining speakers, along with the Staunton-Augusta Health Department and a spokesperson for the Weston A. Price Foundation, did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
If social-media posts were any indication, the speakers had a more than receptive audience at their disposal.
“Ecstatic that i was just at a superspreader event!” Labrada Gore posted on Instagram about the event. “Love. Love was what we spread.”
Labrada Gore, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote that the gathering “was like a taste of heaven” and that “all of the speakers had a slightly different take on what may be causing the current health crisis.”
“We are not victims,” Labrada Gore wrote. “We choose joy. We hug, smile, and connect with people in a way that is beautiful and healing. So, yes, LOVE is what we spread this weekend.”