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Lollapalooza 2016, Sunday
Photograph: Neal O'Bryan

Is Lollapalooza safe to attend in 2021? Chicago doctors weigh in.

If you're attending, we have a few safety tips for this year's fest.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

For the first time in more than a year, Lollapalooza is set to return to Grant Park this Thursday for a weekend of music and revelry. The 100,000-capacity fest can prove somewhat hazardous during the best of times—dehydration, alcohol poisoning and trampling are just a few of the recurring risks—but this year's edition faces a new challenge in the form of the Delta variant, which has caused COVID-19 cases to spike in Chicago and nationwide. As of July 27, it's also spurred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reverse course on its mask guidance, recommending that vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in COVID-19 hotspots.

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Given those updates, what's the risk in allowing the city's largest music festival—notorious for tightly packed crowds and unruly teens—to proceed without capacity limits? That depends on who you ask. For their part, Lollapalooza organizers have released a set of COVID-19 safety rules requiring proof of vaccination (via vaccine card or a printed copy of a vaccine card) or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of entry, and mandate that unvaccinated attendees remain masked while onsite. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other city officials have maintained that the festival can take place safely with these precautions in place, even if it inevitably leads to cases of COVID-19.

"I'm certainly hopeful that we won’t see a significant problem," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a July 27 press conference. "And I certainly know we’re being a lot more responsible than many other settings that are just as large that are gathering around the country."

Still, some local health officials are less optimistic, citing concerns about the inability to enforce safety precautions like masking and social distancing as well as the potential for fake vaccine cards and test results. Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist and the vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, says the best measure right now is to "just pray that it all goes okay."

"I don't actually think there are any safety precautions that would help at this stage," Carnethon says. "Unless by some stroke of luck they're able to convince 18- to 39-year-olds—who are the most unvaccinated demographic group, age-wise—to get vaccinated before attending the festival."

One thing most health professionals seem to agree on: It's unlikely that Lollapalooza will become a super-spreading event; or at least, not in Chicago.

"Do I think it's going to cause a spike in cases in Chicago? Maybe an uptick," says Dr. Emily Landon, an associate professor of medicine and the executive medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at UChicago Medicine. "But I have to say, I think in general people in Chicago are pretty reasonable—I still see a lot of people wearing masks in public places, I see people trying to keep their distance and be respectful. And when it comes to Chicago, we also have a much better vaccination rate than the rest of the state, or honestly, huge chunks of the rest of the country."

The real risk, Landon says, is for attendees to bring the virus back with them to less-vaccinated communities outside of Chicago. "In that setting, it can be kind of like an ember starting a wildfire." (Landon, who has criticized Lollapalooza's safety protocols in several other interviews, faced a strong rebuke from Mayor Lightfoot earlier this week, who said, "God bless the critics standing on the sidelines.")

Ultimately, only time will tell if Lollapalooza sets off a significant chain of infections in Chicago and elsewhere. In the meantime, if you do plan on attending the festival, there are a few steps you can take to minimize COVID-19 risk for yourself and others—here's what Carnethon and Landon suggested.

Wear a mask—but if you don't want to cover up the whole time, wear one strategically

Although Lolla takes place mostly outdoors, the tight proximity of the crowds means that wearing a mask is probably your safest bet, even if you're already vaccinated. However, Carnethon and Landon acknowledged it's unlikely most attendees will opt to wear their masks for the duration of the festival. Want to strike a balance? Consider masking up anytime you have to go inside.

"I don't think it's realistic to expect that people are going to keep a mask on when it's 90 degrees and they're at a concert," Carnethon says. "But certainly if I had to go into a porta-potty or any bathroom—really anywhere with enclosed indoor air space—I'd put my mask on."

Expect that you'll likely be exposed to COVID-19

"You've got to assume that some of the people who are unmasked are not fully vaccinated," Landon says, so it's important to monitor your symptoms in the weeks after the festival wraps up—even if you're vaccinated. There's evidence to suggest the Delta variant is more likely to cause breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals, so Landon recommends limiting time spent with older people and other at-risk individuals. For unvaccinated attendees, of course, the risk of contracting the virus is much greater, so more caution should be taken.

"If you are unvaccinated and you go to Lollapalooza, you need to assume that you've been exposed, and probably take some time off of work," Landon says. "Or at least wear a mask all the time and avoid contact with other people."

If you experience symptoms after the festival, get tested (and consider getting a post-fest test regardless)

Have a case of sniffles around a week after Lolla? Time to go get a COVID-19 test, because you can still spread the virus even with a mild breakthrough case.

"If you're young and vaccinated and healthy, you're only going to get a cold [if you contract COVID-19]," Landon says. "But you have to know that you might have contact with other people who are not so young and healthy and may not be vaccinated. So if you have any symptoms in the first 10 days after your Lollapalooza experience—even just a stuffy nose or sore throat—that can be COVID."

Unvaccinated people, who can come down with much stronger illness, should also seek a test if they experience symptoms. Even if you feel fine, the most prudent option is to get a test five to six days after you attend Lolla, just to be extra safe.

"In my opinion, you should get tested regardless," Landon says.

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