Last week, Dutch health officials announced that over 1,000 people who had attended Verknipt, a dance music festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, had tested positive for COVID-19. The three-day event attracted 20,000 people and denied entry to anybody without proof of full vaccination or a negative test.
While it’s unclear whether these individuals caught the virus at the festival, the news was a reminder that even as live music opens back up, the pandemic is still very much ongoing. As we move into festival season, the much more infectious Delta variant now represents over 83 percent of new cases in the United States, though those infections are mostly occurring in unvaccinated populations.
Concert promoters and music fans have spent the pandemic dreaming of the day when we could finally assemble in public without worrying about the virus. As it stands, though, the reality is that live music events will still carry some degree of risk for the foreseeable future. And though the chances of infection and sickness are significantly lower for those of us who have been fully vaccinated, navigating the return to live music, like so many aspects of pandemic life, will likely come down to figuring out what level of risk you're comfortable with.
According to Dr. Benjamin D. Singer, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern Medicine, the positive cases at Verknipt aren’t surprising. “While it's certainly not good to have five percent of your entire attendees test positive, in some ways, it's good that it wasn't worse,” he said.
Tim Spector, a professor of epidemiology at King’s College London and the lead scientist at ZOE, a U.K.-based study where people enter their COVID-19 symptoms on an app, told VICE that the incident shows how infectious the Delta variant is. “What happened in the Netherlands is not surprising, given the current data we have in the UK,” he said. “People need to be aware that when they go to these events, they've got a reasonable chance of catching the virus or getting long COVID if they’re not vaccinated. We have to start living with this new phase of the pandemic and not hide from the risks.”
In hindsight, experts say that the organizers at Verknipt, which was held July 2 to 4, made some serious errors in minimizing the risk of spread. Even though attendees had to show proof of vaccination at the entrance, festival-goers could gain entry immediately upon getting their second shot (or receiving a single-dose vaccine), despite the fact it takes several weeks to build up immunity. If attendees weren’t vaccinated, they could show proof of a negative test taken within the previous 40 hours.
“We’ve found out now that this period is too long," said Lennart van Trigt, a spokesman for the Utrecht health board, in a press conference. "We should have had a 24-hour [period]. That would be a lot better, because in 40 hours, people can do a lot of things, like visiting friends and going to bars and clubs. So in a period of 24 hours, people can do [fewer] things and it’s safer."
Safety protocols at Lollapalooza, which is happening next weekend in Chicago and is expecting about 100,000 attendees per day, don't look all that different from the ones at Verknipt. Lollapalooza requires attendees to provide proof-of-vaccination or a negative test, but its testing window is even more lenient: 72 hours. Other festivals, including this weekend’s Floydfest in Virginia, require no proof of vaccination or test for entry.
Despite some calls to cancel Lollapalooza over safety concerns, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced this week that she had no second thoughts on signing off on Lollapalooza, though she added that unvaccinated individuals will need to wear a mask.
“I don't think I can give an opinion about whether to cancel or open shows,'' said Spector. “People organizing any event, whether it’s a large employer or concert, need to accept that whenever you get many people together, you're going to have some COVID.”
Since the possibility of zero COVID-19 is no longer realistic, organizers will have to focus on mitigating risk through strategies like distancing measures, masks for the unvaccinated, and stringent requirements for entry. When it comes to individual festival-goers, though, the best insurance against getting sick is making sure that you're arriving fully vaccinated. “You can do these things, including keeping things outside and being very liberal and accepting of people who still want to wear masks,” said Dr. Singer. “But certainly, vaccinations are the hammer that solves this problem best.”
While the idea of potentially contracting COVID-19 at a concert is scary, especially for those of us who are just beginning to venture out into the world, Dr. Singer stresses that for fully vaccinated people, it can be useful to put the danger in perspective. “It is pretty clear that full vaccination, particularly with two doses of the mRNA vaccines, is quite effective to defend against the virus and its variants,” he said. “We know that breakthrough infections can happen in the vaccinated, but the main benefit of the vaccine is not just that it decreases the risk of getting a positive test; it decreases your risk of getting really sick.”
The vaccines are unequivocally working. According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine offer 88 percent protection against symptomatic disease caused by the delta variant. This is comparable to its 94 percent protection against the previously dominant alpha variant. Another study found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 96 percent effective against hospitalizations for the Delta variant.
Even though cases are on the rise, health experts believe that the worst of the pandemic is over. While there will be more cases and likely continue to be hospitalizations and deaths, especially among the unvaccinated, the fact that the United States has fully vaccinated 90 percent of seniors—the group most vulnerable to COVID-19, comprising 80 percent of all pandemic deaths—suggests that the virus will no longer be nearly as deadly as it was last year.
In New York Magazine, writer David Wallace-Wells summed up the shifting landscape of the pandemic: “Vaccines have eliminated the overwhelming share of American mortality risk, with the disease now circulating almost exclusively among people who can endure it much, much better.”
This is not to say that music festivals are 100 percent safe, or that vaccinated young people shouldn’t take precautions to avoid catching the disease and maintain their distance if they decide to attend one. “Your risks will be low but not zero,” said Dr. Spector, citing legitimate concerns that while a young person’s infection might be mild, they do run the risk of developing long COVID-19, a cluster of symptoms that can last for as long as months after initial infection. Make no mistake: If you go to a large gathering of thousands of people, there's a good chance that some people there will have COVID-19. Then again, if you're vaccinated and the festival is taking safety seriously, there's a chance that you'll be just fine: A study at Serbia’s EXIT festival, which took place a week after Verknipt, found zero infections in the tested population.
Instead of throwing all caution to the wind when we attend these events—or conversely, avoiding them entirely—Spector advises music fans to educate themselves on the disease, take an inventory of their personal comfort level, and proceed from there. “We've got to start changing the way we think about risk in terms of it being safe or not safe to do things,” said Spector. “There's a line here of risk, and it's where you are on that line and what level you're comfortable at.” Of course, there are also common-sense precautions: If you feel sick at all, including with any cold-like symptoms, stay home.
The bad news for music fans is that going to a festival, for the time being, there will likely be infected persons spreading COVID-19 if it’s not exclusively a gathering of fully vaccinated people. The good news is that while music festivals aren't going away, we have the power to make informed choices about how we interact with them. “I suspect many people will accept those risks,” Spector said. “But some won't. I think it's important that those people are given a chance to make those decisions themselves, rather than being told, ‘Yes, it's safe,’ or ‘No, it's not.’”