Column: Lollapalooza feels like a COVID mistake waiting to happen

·4 min read

The Lollapalooza music festival and the delta coronavirus variant are on a collision course in Chicago, and the four-day event may well be a canary in a coal mine as Americans reckon with surging cases of COVID-19.

On paper, the festival, which in the past has drawn 100,000 people a day, has a safe plan: To get in, ticket holders must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of entry.

But myriad “what-ifs” haunt that plan. What if the ticket screeners aren’t thorough enough to catch people presenting fake vaccine cards or virus test papers? What if the unvaccinated people who tested negative, at some point within that 72-hour window, got exposed to the virus?

The event is outdoors, which we know helps, but mosh pits aren’t known for social distancing, and the odds of widespread mask-wearing seem slim. So what does this mean?

Vaccinated festival goers are largely safe, though reports of breakthrough cases of COVID-19 have increased since the delta variant asserted its dominance in America. Almost all deaths and hospitalizations now involve unvaccinated people, but just how much a vaccinated person who contracts the virus can spread it to others remains unclear.

Any unvaccinated people who contract the virus are likely to expose others before they show symptoms or get a positive COVID-19 test result. A recent study by the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that people infected with the delta variant carry dramatically higher viral loads, about 1,000 times more than those infected with the original coronavirus strain. That’s part of the reason the variant is so contagious.

Lollapalooza will bring tens of thousands of people into Chicago from all parts of the country. Many, if not most, will be vaccinated, but the unvaccinated will be out and about in the city, at shops and restaurants and hotels. They will return to the suburbs of Chicago and to states and cities throughout America, and some will carry the virus with them.

The vaccinated may not need to worry about getting severely sick from the delta variant, or any other current strains of this coronavirus. But each new infection increases the chances a vaccine-evading variant will develop.

Asked this week if she regrets allowing Lollapalooza to be held at full capacity, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said: “I feel like we made the right decisions, but we’re sounding the alarm today because we’re starting to see this uptick. We’ve seen this before.”

We have, indeed. The number of new cases per day nationally has tripled over the past few weeks, and while cases, hospitalizations and deaths dwell in comparison with last year, the delta variant is more vicious than the strain that shut the country down, and vaccine hesitancy is providing it with enough hosts to thrive.

There’s no plan to cancel Lollapalooza, so it will become a test case for the weeks and months ahead. The same can be said of the tens of thousands of Milwaukee Bucks fans who celebrated the team’s NBA championship win Tuesday night outside Fiserv Forum.

How risky is it to be maskless and in close contact with other people, even if you’re outdoors? Is the delta variant leading to an increase in breakthrough cases of COVID-19? Are insufficient vaccination rates keeping the term “superspreader event” alive?

There are reasons to be concerned. A recent outdoor music festival in the Dutch city of Utrecht had safety protocols similar to those planned for Lollapalooza — proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test were required.

Of the 20,000 who went to the concert, more than 1,000 later tested positive for COVID-19.

“We cannot say that all these people were infected at the festival itself,” Lennart van Trigt, a spokesman for the Utrecht health board, told CNBC. “It could also be possible that they’ve been infected while traveling to the festival or in the evening before going to the festival or having an after-party.”

But in the wake of the wave of infections, van Trigt said the city may have been “a bit too trigger-happy.”

I fear that’s the case here in Chicago as well. Lollapalooza, for all the economic good it does the city, feels like a mistake waiting to happen.

But at this point, all we can do is watch. If it goes well and people stay healthy, we will have learned something. If not, we’ll know how far we have to go, and realize difficult conversations lie ahead as schools start reopening in about a month.

Like it or not, this year’s festival is a canary in a coal mine.

Here’s hoping that bird shows us the mine is safe.

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