CHICAGO, Ill. — Canceled last year, Lollapalooza made its return this week. The annual four-day music festival is expected to draw 100,000 people. It’s one of the first giant events in the country since the pandemic began. More are planned in the coming months including Bonaroo, the Governor’s Ball, and Summerfest.
Despite health checks, some in public health are watching this event closely, concerned a head-on collision with the delta variant could turn the outdoor concert event into a super spreader event.
Still, following months of isolation, tens of thousands have flocked to Chicago’s Grant Park to escape the pandemic and enjoy outdoor music.
“It's my second time out at Lollapalooza,” said Kevin Metras, a Lollapalooza attendee. “I'm so excited. It's nice, hot. You know, I'm trying to sweat and stay hydrated.”
It’s the first major music festival in the U.S. since the outbreak began. But it comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging in parts of the country.
“You know, I got my vaccine, I'm young, I'm healthy, I think I should be OK,” said Ishi Nagpal, a Lollapalooza attendee who chose not to mask.
Yet, guidelines to attend Lolla were recently loosened.
At first, proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours before entering each day was required. That was downgraded to within 72 hours of arrival.
“No, we're all going to die either way,” said Lollapalooza attendee Kailee Parker
Masks are mandated for all unvaccinated attendees, but it’s unclear how that’s going to be enforced once you get past the gates.
“Yeah. You know, probably when I’m within the groups of people I probably might wear it a little bit,” said Metras, who is wearing a mask. “It just makes us all feel good. I'm vaccinated but, you know, gotta take that extra step sometimes.”
“The Lollapalooza organizers haven't really made good on their promise to use electronic apps to track vaccination and testing. And so far, ticket holders haven't had to upload those things,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine.
A busy Fourth of July weekend resulted in a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There were more than 830 cases. About 74% of them were reportedly breakthrough infections among vaccinated visitors who became symptomatic.
“I can't promise that there won't be any COVID cases associated with Lolla when you're having this many folks who are coming through,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “Almost certainly there will be some cases.”
City public health officials admit there are risks of COVID-19 spreading even outdoors at massive gatherings like Lollapalooza, but remained confident that they’ve taken proper precautions.
“I'm certainly hopeful that we won't see a significant problem. And I certainly know we're being a lot more responsible than many other settings,” said Arwady.
But unlike barriers and fencing, what happens on these grounds can’t be contained.
“The one thing that will make Lollapalooza into a really dangerous event for the rest of this country will be if people leave Lollapalooza, go back to their unvaccinated communities and ignore the symptoms that they have afterward,” said Landon.
Some infectious disease experts recommend getting tested after attending massive outdoor festivals, especially if you experience any symptoms.
“We're planning on getting tested a few days after just in case, you know, you can never be too careful,” said Cassie Cabanas, a Lollapalooza attendee who is wearing a mask even though she is vaccinated.
But some experts say there’s only one real way to side-step the threat.
“If you don't want to get COVID, don't go to Lollapalooza,” said Landon.
Experts say contact tracing across state lines will be key in assessing the ripple effect of mass gatherings like Lollapalooza. The results could also set the stage for health protocols at other major festivals.