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Summer Music Festivals Are Back. But Are They Safe?

A crowd of festival-goers cheer at Lollapalooza 2021

Erika Goldring / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Large outdoor music festivals have returned this summer with varying degrees of COVID-19 vaccination requirements for attendees. 
  • Some experts are concerned that it's unsafe to hold large gatherings as the Delta variant spread worsens.
  • The best way to mitigate risk if you are attending a music festival this summer or fall is to follow COVID-19 guidelines like wearing a mask, social distancing, and above all, getting vaccinated.

Large music festivals are a hallmark of summer with dozens of artists and thousands of screaming fans gathering for one weekend. Festivals are a memorable experience for music lovers, but they aren’t exactly the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

After many festivals were canceled last summer, fans are more eager than ever to see their favorite artists perform in person. July festivals like Lollapalooza and Miami Rolling Loud just wrapped up while others like Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, and Austin City Limits are still scheduled for early fall. 

But some are questioning whether it’s too soon to start returning to music festivals, especially given the rise of the Delta variant

A Mixed Bag of COVID-19 Guidelines

Lollapalooza and Miami Rolling Loud, both of which took place in late July, had wildly different COVID-19 safety measures because of varying local and state guidelines. 

Held in Chicago, Lollapalooza required festival-goers to either show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test from the last 72 hours. They also asked the unvaccinated to wear face masks and maintain at least six feet of social distance from others.

At Miami Rolling Loud, where state restrictions are more lax, neither proof of vaccination nor masking was required for those attending the festival. On its website, Rolling Loud did recommend that all festival-goers wear masks and Miami-Dade County hosted a pop-up vaccination clinic on site for those interested. Crowd footage from the event, however, showed that most attendees did not wear masks.

Over 385,000 people attended Lollapalooza this year, according to Chicago Sun Times. An estimated 210,000 people attended Miami Rolling Loud when it was held in 2019.

Natalie Repole, who attended Lollapalooza this year, tells Verywell that few attendees wore masks and social distancing was non-existent as people tried to push closer to the stage. 

“Overall, I feel like most people were not worried about COVID at the festival,” Repole says. 

But she felt confident about the COVID-19 guidelines at Lollapalooza. “Workers were actually very diligent about checking the vaccination cards,” she says, adding that there were two separate checkpoints.

Lollapalooza said on Twitter that more than 90% of those who attended the festival on the first day brought proof of vaccination and 8% had proof of negative COVID-19 tests. 

However, requiring negative COVID tests and asking that unvaccinated people wear masks may not actually stop the spread of disease, one expert warns.

“That whole aspect of it was largely performative,” Katrine Wallace, PhD, adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells Verywell. “‘If you're unvaccinated, you need to wear a mask’—It's almost like they make this disclaimer and then they're not responsible for anything that happens after that.”

Lollapalooza allowing negative COVID-19 tests from within 72 hours of attendance may also pose an issue, Wallace says. Research shows that the Delta variant may be more infectious than earlier COVID strains after a person is exposed and it takes around 3.7 days for the viral loads to peak.

Can Other Events Predict Festival Safety?

About 1,000 people tested positive after attending Verknipt, a Dutch outdoor EDM music festival that took place in early July, Wallace adds.

“They had more stringent requirements and it still led to cases. Now we don't know that Lollapalooza is going to be a big huge problem—we're still watching the data on that—but this just doesn't bode well,” Wallace says.

In a press conference, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended the city’s decision to host Lollapalooza this year, saying that there shouldn’t be a risk because the event was outdoors and most attendees were vaccinated. She also cited the return of Chicago baseball games and other large outdoor events as proof that it’s mostly safe to gather outside with a mix of vaccinations and masks. 

But Wallace points out that the city's baseball stadiums hold a maximum of 41,000 people while Lollapalooza had 385,000. She adds that music festivals attract fans from all over the region and they can pose a greater threat than a localized community event.

“Travel increases the risk of COVID transmission anyway. You're maybe at a busy hotel or you're taking public transportation,” Wallace says. “You're dealing with different exposure points along the way.”

Rising Cases—Coincidence or Cause? 

Since COVID-19 cases have been on the rise throughout the United States as well as in Chicago and Miami, it can be difficult to determine how big of an impact Lollapalooza and Rolling Loud had on community spread. 

Local departments of health also may not be able to accurately determine how many cases are linked to these events. If out-of-state festival-goers tested positive, the data will be reported to their local health office, Wallace explains.

In Miami-Dade county, CDC data showed a 26.5% increase in new cases on August 10 from the week prior, when the festival took place. Similarly, there was a 33% increase in COVID cases in Cook County, Illinois, where Lollapalooza was held. 

Within the city of Chicago itself, data also showed a spike in cases from August 2 to August 6 that has seemingly subsided as of August 10.

Although these surges may be associated with the summer festivals, they could simply be indicative of the overall national trend of rising COVID cases.

Mitigating COVID Risk Going Forward

There are layered strategies to making these large events safer, Wallace suggests. Gathering outdoors is good, she says, but it also makes sense to take a step back or wear a mask if there’s a large crowd.

Wallace applauds music venues that require all visitors to be vaccinated, which might even encourage unvaccinated people to get the shot.

“Hopefully when this surge dies down and we get the vaccination percentage up and move towards herd immunity more, we'll be able to actually enjoy things without that anxiety in the background,” Wallace says. 

AEG Presents, a large tour and festival promoter, just announced that all concert-goers must show proof of vaccination to attend their shows or festivals—that includes the Coachella Arts and Music Festival, the Firefly Music Festival, and venues like New York's Webster Hall and Brooklyn Steel, among others. The rule will go into effect no later than October 1, and will only be limited when required by state law, the company says.

For those who attended Lollapalooza, like Repole, the joy of being able to experience live music again outweighed the risks. 

“It felt very surreal. After a year of devastation and isolation, it felt liberating to be around so many other people,” Repole says. “You could just feel that there was such happiness and joy in the air. I think that music and concerts give people a sense of unity and that feeling was definitely present at Lollapalooza.” 

What This Means For You

Because outdoor music festivals can sometimes attract hundreds of thousands of people, experts think they may spread COVID-19. If you do plan on going to a concert or festival, do what you can to make the event as safe as possible by getting vaccinated, getting tested for COVID if you feel sick, and wearing a mask. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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