Few Masks Worn at Tony Robbins event in West Palm Beach last month; 14 people say they got COVID-19
BY MOST ACCOUNTS, motivational speaker Tony Robbins’ first “Unleash The Power Within” conference in two years was a huge success.
Held last month at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, the sold-out four-day event attracted more than 9,000 people who paid at least $1,000 each to immerse themselves in the international self-help guru’s life-changing empowerment exercises — from dancing, hugging and high-fiving to walking on hot coals.
But at least 14 people believe they might have taken something else from the seminar: COVID-19, according to interviews with attendees and comments on a Facebook page devoted to the West Palm Beach event.
While those 14 people said they tested positive after returning home from the seminar, none of them can prove they caught the deadly coronavirus while inside the convention center during the seminar Nov. 11-14. They could have gotten it on airplanes, at airports or restaurants.
And Palm Beach County officials praised Robbins Research International for employing a series of safety protocols at the convention center — from requirements for attendees to show proof of vaccination or results of a negative test prior to entry to installing a $150,000 air filtration system.
But the county’s top manager was disappointed about one glaring omission from the safety protocols: Few attendees wore masks, in violation of a Palm Beach County mask mandate that was in effect at the time. (The mandate was lifted Nov. 17.)
And although signs in the convention center warned that anyone failing to wear a mask would be “asked to leave,’’ photos and videos on social media show images of a packed seminar with few people wearing masks.
“It was rare to see somebody with a mask on the entire time,’’ participant Okey Nestor, who said he tested positive after he returned home to New York, said in an interview.
“It started out that people were wearing masks initially, but then the masks came off and they never really went back on for a good majority of the people there, including myself.
“I can't honestly 100 percent say that I got it there, but as soon as I got back I had symptoms.”
Paul Fisher of West Palm Beach, who said he tested positive a few days after the event, can’t definitely say he picked up the virus at the convention center, either.
But when he posted on the Robbins “Unleash The Power Within” West Palm Beach Facebook page that he’d tested positive, he said he wasn’t surprised when Nestor and others wrote that they’d gotten sick after the event, too.
“No reasonable person could make the leap that it was all coincidence,’’ said Fisher, who admitted that he doesn’t know exactly where or how he contracted the virus.
“All those people in the same room breathing the same air and doing all these yelling and screaming exercises and jumping up and down and being encouraged to high-five and hug strangers. It couldn't have been a better incubator,’’ he said.
In a statement in response to questions about the West Palm Beach seminar, a Robbins Research International spokeswoman said the company undertook “extensive precautions and safety enhancements” before, during and after the event.
Those measures included having a third-party COVID testing provider and medical personnel in the convention center, providing free FDA-approved ClearMask(s) and “holding the event during a week when data from Johns Hopkins and the Florida Department of Health showed reported Covid cases, positive tests and hospitalizations were among the lowest in the nation,’’ said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Connelly.
The entire statement can be read at the end of this story.
When asked in a follow-up email if Robbins’ staff told guests to wear masks, RRI sent photographs of signs in the convention center warning about the removal of people not wearing masks.
Connelly did not respond to follow-up questions asking why Robbins and his staff didn’t do more to enforce the county's mask mandate, since photos and video show few people inside the convention center wearing masks.
Doctors and federal health officials strongly recommend masks at indoors events to cut down the potential for spread of the airborne virus. But many conservatives, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald J. Trump, downplay the need for masks, claiming they fail to provide true protection.
Some people who commented on the local “Unleash The Power Within” Facebook page described having fevers, sore throats and runny noses after coming home from the event. Concerned they might have gotten COVID-19, many of those people said they tested negative.
A few commenters speculated that sick attendees may have developed a common cold or flu while others blamed what they called the “Tony flu,’’ which they claim have afflicted attendees to Robbins events even before the pandemic.
But at least 14 others who returned home with symptoms said they tested positive for the coronavirus. And a few commenters said they knew of others who’d tested positive after attending the event.
“I had Covid right after the UPW event and have been sick ‘till last Sunday,’’ Pedro Ramirez wrote on Facebook last month.
“Just tested positive yesterday with symptoms starting wednesday,’’ Raymond B Wolfgang wrote on Facebook after he attended the event. “I too liked the event — but wish I had gone with my gut and kept wearing the mask.’’
It wasn’t the first time the county’s mask mandate was not enforced during a large gathering at the convention center. In December 2020, some county commissioners expressed concern about video clips showing most of the 2,000 people at a young conservatives conference not wearing masks. (Vice President Mike Pence was the keynote speaker at the Turning Point USA Student Action seminar.)
Dave Anderson, the convention center’s general manager, did not respond to several requests for comment.
Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker said she spoke to Anderson after a reporter reached out to her. She said Anderson told her the Robbins team employed several “mitigating factors” at the event, including the air filtration system and requiring proof of vaccination for entry.
“But that’s no excuse for violating our executive order at that time,’’ Baker said. “We had an executive order in place and it should have been followed.’’
She said Robbins’ team should have done a better job of reminding attendees about the mask mandate, but she also acknowledged the challenges of ensuring compliance from a gathering of 9,000 people.
“I reiterated the fact that we had an executive order in place and people should have been following it,’’ Baker said of her conversation with Anderson.
“But you don't know who was following it, who wasn't,’’ she said. “We don’t have enough staff to follow every single person around and constantly make them put their mask on. The normal procedure is for (Robbins) to have people throughout the center reminding people, ‘You should be masked, you should be masked, you should be masked.’’’
No one who attended the event complained to the county about mask-mandate violations, Baker said. She emphasized that there’s “no evidence that they contracted anything from Palm Beach County” and said the state health department didn’t report any COVID-19 infections from the event.
“I’m sorry they got sick, but I don't believe it was because of their visit to the Palm Beach County Convention Center,’’ she said.
Some seminar participants disagree with Baker’s conclusion.
“It was more than obvious that many people would get it. 10k people in a closed room and the ones who wore a mask (including myself) were just a few ‘freaks’ on the floor,’’’ a commenter named Dra Wendy Delgado wrote on Facebook.
Fisher said wearing masks “was not encouraged. It was discouraged, if anything. Tony praised Gov. Ron DeSantis for allowing us the freedom to make these choices, whether or not we want to infect vulnerable people or not.’’
Fisher said Robbins “actively mocked people wearing masks and made jokes about people who wear masks in a car when they're by themselves. So it was pretty well-established right at the get-go that it wasn’t encouraged.’’
“I did feel a bit misled about the event. It was my understanding that masks were going to be required by all attendees,’’ Tabitha Merendino wrote on Facebook.
“I tested myself when I got back as I think everyone should. 9000 people and only 5% wearing masks. I was negative. Amen!’’ wrote Eric Luick.
After another attendee wrote that he and his wife tested positive after the event, Fisher replied with a sarcastic jab playing off the seminar’s name: “Unleash the Pathogen Within!’’
When Fisher posted on the Robbins Facebook page about getting COVID-19 after attending the seminar, he said Robbins’ company sent him a message about the safety protocols the company employed at the event.
Fisher, who said he didn’t file a formal complaint with the county or the health department because he didn’t think it would change anything, remained incredulous about why and how so many people still wound up getting sick.
“All it would have taken was to ask everyone to wear a mask,’’ Fisher wrote in a reply to RRI’s message. “I thought I made my own choice but I brought COVID home and infected my wife. I am ashamed of myself, I used extremely poor judgment. Not as bad as Tony, but insanely bad nonetheless.’’
Nestor said his positive COVID-19 test after returning from West Palm Beach forced him to cancel a family Thanksgiving gathering. Although he has no regrets about attending, he was disappointed organizers weren’t more vigilant about the mask mandate.
“If I had been sicker, if I had passed it on to my wife, which I didn't, I would have had regrets, but since it was mild and she tested negative three times now and we’re both fine, I don't have any regrets,’’ he said.
“It was a wonderful event, I would definitely go back, but when they say one thing and they do another, it just kind of concerns me. They said everybody is going to be wearing a mask, yada-yada-yada, and that really wasn't the case there.’’
The vast majority of attendees, including some who say they got sick after the event, raved about Robbins’ seminar, saying it empowered them to improve their lives, according to comments on the group's Facebook page.
“I did test positive for covid when I returned home however there are no regrets!!” wrote Julia Keohan.
“I just tested positive for COVID-19...this event is the only time I got my guard down,’’ wrote Elana Gelma, who added: “But it’s also true I could have gotten it anywhere else — 2 airports, 2 train stations, Uber rides, restaurants, etc. Hope we all recover soon.’’
Anthony Roros, who works in real estate in New York, said in an interview that he “got sick” five days after the seminar ended. He tested negative a week later and said he feels fine.
He said he has no regrets about attending the event with his two daughters and a friend. “It was fantastic,’’ he said. “The four of us we were joking that if he would have passed the Kool-Aid around people would drink it.’’
Robbins, who bought a $24.8 million ocean-to-lake home in Manalapan in 2013, has legions of fans worldwide, many of whom refer to each other as “firewalkers” for participating in his popular walking-on-hot-coals empowerment exercise, which many West Palm Beach attendees did in November in the parking lot behind the convention center.
He provides life advice to Fortune 500 companies and U.S. presidents. His web page includes testimonials from Serena Williams and pop star Usher.
He had also been suspicious since the early days of the pandemic about public reactions to COVID-19, telling employees that the flu was worse than the coronavirus and adding, “We have lost our minds on this,’’ according to a story last year in The Verge, an online news site.
When public safety protocols went into place around the country, Robbins was forced to cancel a four-day “Unleash The Power” seminar in San Jose, Calif., In March 2020, resulting in refunds for 12,000 people who’d paid for tickets starting at $1,000.
After the West Palm Beach event last month, Robbins wrote this message on Facebook: “THANK YOU to each and every one of you beautiful hearts who gathered together with us for our first in-person Unleash the Power Within in two years!! It was a gorgeous and blessed weekend of life, thank you for your hunger, thank you for your willingness, and most of all for the LOVE & KINDNESS you poured out to each other.’’
His next “Unleash The Power Within” seminar is scheduled for March 17-20. It will be held virtually, which RRI says was always the plan, even before attendees at the West Palm Beach event claimed they got sick.
Fisher, an art gallery owner who’d attended Robbins seminars in the 1980s and ‘90s, does not plan to attend.
“How ironic that the most dangerous unhealthy thing that I've done in the last 20 years is go to a self-improvement seminar,’’ he said.
Statement from Robbins Research International
“UPW Florida occurred at the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Nov. 11-14 after months of preparation. Robbins Research International worked with venue management to ensure the safety of all people attending the event. Extensive precautions and safety enhancements were undertaken prior, during and after the event including:
· Requiring ALL attendees to use CLEAR Health Pass or undergo onsite credential review to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event in order to enter (Note: Mandating only vaccination to attend events in Florida is prohibited by state executive order)
· Enhancing the venue’s ventilation system with Robbins Research International paying to have a new state-of-the-art $150,000 FDA-cleared ActivePure ®air filtration system installed in the spacious venue for this event and others in the future
· Enhancing cleaning and other health and safety protocols at the venue before and during the event
· Providing a professional third-party COVID testing provider and medical personnel onsite
· Providing free FDA-approved ClearMask(s).
· Holding the event during a week when data from Johns Hopkins and the Florida Department of Health showed reported Covid cases, positive tests and hospitalizations were among the lowest in the nation
· Holding the event after Nov. 8 when all international visitors to the U.S. who chose to attend the event were required to get vaccinated before entering the country
· Advising all ticketholders NOT to attend the event if they were ill or felt ill prior to the start of the event on Nov. 11th
· Advising all ticketholders in writing prior to the event that while numerous steps were taken to combat COVID’s presence at the event, the risk of any attendee contracting COVID could not be completely eliminated
· Denying entry to the event for any registrant who received a positive Covid test.
· Notifying and encouraging any participant who tested positive following the event to consult CDC guidance and/or their personal healthcare provider.
“We continue to wish everyone who chose to attend Unleash the Power Within Palm Beach the best of health. Thank you once again for joining us, it was an incredible weekend.”
© 2021 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
Sign up for a free subscription to ByJoeCapozzi.com
IN CASE YOU MISSED my previous story: Before 'Get Back' Documented The Beatles' Final Days, Harry Benson Photographed Their Early Days