A year after summer music festivals were silenced by the coronavirus pandemic, a more infectious variant is showing up to this year’s gatherings like an unwelcome gate-crasher.
As of Friday, the seven-day average for new daily cases in the United States jumped 57 percent from the previous week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. With the delta variant pushing new infections and hospitalization rates upward, the horns of triumph for summer music festivals are starting to sound more like a sad trombone.
After 2020′s summer of shutdowns, fans, musicians and promoters are eager to return to the stage - as are many of the cities that host the lucrative events. It’s made major music festivals seem at once like an unstoppable force and, to health experts, an avoidable risk.
“I would probably not recommend [going],” Maria Alcaide, an infectious-disease specialist who directs the Infectious Diseases Research Unit with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She cited the “significant” uptick in the number of new cases and hospitalizations, primarily driven by unvaccinated people.
In Alcaide’s backyard, Rolling Loud, one of the biggest outdoor hip-hop festivals, opened its gates to a sold-out crowd Friday with tens of thousands of fans flooding into Hard Rock Stadium to hear headliners such as A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott and Post Malone. Florida now leads the United States in new infections and hospitalizations, but has few state and local health restrictions back in place. The festival cited the latter for its apparent lack of covid restrictions at Rolling Loud, though attendees were encouraged to wear masks, according to its website.
The festival’s organizers did not immediately respond to requests for comment but told The Miami Herald Thursday that they were leaving it to guests to decide whether to attend vaccinated and masked.
“Fans will have the choice, whether they want to be vaccinated or mask,” Rolling Loud co-founder Tariq Cheriff told the Herald. “That’s basically what we believe in. You got the choice and that’s it.”
Infectious-disease experts interviewed by The Post were less cavalier. They said while being outdoors in a well-ventilated area is less risky than an indoor setting, festivalgoers are likely to have a hard time keeping the necessary physical distance where crowds are packed in and everyone is dancing, singing, shouting, sweating and drinking.
Even outdoors, the risk of increased transmission rises at chokepoints such as entrances, bathroom lines and at the space nearest to the stage where crowds tend to pack in the tightest.
Alcaide acknowledged big festivals are important for the cities that host them but said it was crucial to take as many precautions as possible. Festivalgoers can lessen their risk by being at least two weeks out from a second vaccine dose before gathering outdoors with people whose inoculation status is unknown.
“If you’re going with a group, make sure that everyone in your group is also fully vaccinated, and try to stay with them,” Alcaide advised. She recommended following other well-known guidelines, like physical distancing, but acknowledged it’s harder to find a safe distance surrounded by crowds of singing, shouting people. When in doubt, even outdoors, she said, “consider wearing a mask if you don’t feel safe.”
Lollapalooza, which takes place next week in Chicago’s Grant Park, will try to mitigate risk by requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken within the past 72 hours as a condition of entry; attendees who aren’t vaccinated are asked to wear a mask throughout the festival.
Sajal Tanna, an infectious diseases physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said while requirement are better than none at all, they’re not foolproof.
“Just because you’re fully vaccinated doesn’t mean you’re fully immune,” Tanna told The Post. “And the negative tests, you may have just gotten tested too early, and by the time you enter the festival you’re actually shedding the virus and are infectious.”
Representatives for Live Nation and C3, which promote and manage the music festival, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Protocols similar to what Lollapalooza will have were in place for a Dutch music festival held this month that ultimately may have led to nearly 1,000 coronavirus infections. Roughly 20,000 people attended the Verknipt outdoor festival over two days and flashed a QR code to prove inoculation, a negative coronavirus test or a recent infection (which would produce antibodies).
The reality of risk from even the ostensibly cautious gatherings like Verknipt makes the prospect of large-scale music festivals a tough sell, even for the biggest music fans.
Music critic Jim DeRogatis, who co-hosts the public radio podcast “Sound Opinions,” said holding Lollapalooza amid rising infection rates in a half-vaccinated country was “dangerous and foolhardy.”
“If you’ve got anyone at home you could be exposing, you should not go. Eat the ticket,” DeRogatis told The Post.
DeRogatis, who is based in Chicago, has been a longtime critic of Lollapalooza for its business practices. Since the festival grew from a smaller independent traveling show to a major destination festival 15 years ago, DeRogatis said he is skeptical of quality control.
“They can’t even control their own gates; we have no reason to believe that they’re going to enforce the vaccine and testing mandates,” he said. “Look at the pictures of Lollapalooza. There is zero ability to social distance if you’re not paying $3,500 for the VIP ticket and air-conditioned wine bar.” (A four-day VIP Platinum pass this year cost $4,200.)
Using the Verknipt festival’s roughly five percent infection rate, DeRogatis teased out the potential risk from Lollapalooza: If five percent of one-day attendees wind up with an infection, that’s 5,000 people. “That’s horrifying,” he said.
Tanna, at Northwestern, said destination festivals can drive a surge in new infections because outbreaks don’t necessarily stay local.
“Especially with the larger-scale festivals where people come from all over the state, or even the country, you’re mixing a lot of people who have different vaccination statuses and are maybe going home to communities that are not as vaccinated,” she said.
After Lollapalooza, there will be at least two other large-scale festivals - Pitchfork and Riot Fest - in Chicago in the coming weeks, with at least a dozen more large festivals scheduled to take place across the country between now and autumn.
Critics such as DeRogatis said that should major festivals turn into superspreader events, smaller music venues will be the ones that ultimately suffer.
“They have just suffered the most dangerous time of their existence being dark for more than a year and a half,” DeRogatis said of small and independent music venues. “If infections start again in a serious way and the city has to start shutting down again, I don’t see how they survive. It could be a death blow, and it’s for four days of this mega corporation.”