Major summer music festivals have returned in the United States, leaving some health experts concerned and concert promoters in Australia working on plans for safe post-lockdown events.

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of people made their way through Chicago’s Grant Park for the Lollapalooza music festival, despite a surge in the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19.

The four-day event drew about 100,000 people each day, and this year’s lineup – featuring the likes of Foo Fighters, Miley Cyrus and Tyler, the Creator – was one of the first major festivals in the US since the start of the pandemic.

Photos of the event’s enormous crowds have shocked many, including epidemiologist Marylouise McLaws from the University of New South Wales, who is among a group of experts who have provided advice to Lollapalooza’s parent company, Live Nation, about how to hold future events safely in Australia.

Live Nation has a controlling stake in Australian festivals such as Splendour in the Grass and Falls Festival, and the Australian iteration of Download Festival.

To attend this year’s Lollapalooza, ticketholders in Chicago had to either be fully vaccinated (and prove this with a vaccination card) or receive a negative test result in the previous 72 hours.

Live Nation worked with local health officials and adhered to their regulations, the company said. This meant there was no mask mandate, until day three when masks were made compulsory in the festival’s indoor spaces.

An aerial photo of a large crowd in front of a stage at the 2021 Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago
Lollapalooza operators Live Nation are working on plans for post-lockdown events in Australia.(

Dan Barker

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Chicago is currently seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations.

A little more than 50 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, but the city of 3 million people is recording about 250 new cases per day – similar to what Sydney has been recording in the past week of its Delta outbreak.

The Delta variant now makes up more than 80 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in the US, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Upon seeing images of the huge crowds at Lollapalooza, University of Chicago infection prevention and control executive medical director Emily Landon took to Twitter to express her concerns, which have been dismissed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot as coming from “critics on the sidelines”.

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Doctor Allison Arwady from the Chicago Department of Public Health said while no event was completely safe from COVID-19, she was happy with the precautions in place at Lollapalooza.

Since the festival, some Lollapalooza attendees have shared their COVID-19 test results on social media.

“I’m fully vaccinated and woke up with body aches, sore throat, stuffy nose, and a headache,” one attendee wrote on Reddit, adding that they later tested positive.

“Based on when I tested [positive] I probably had it while I was at [Lollapalooza] but contracted it before,” wrote another.

Video on social media also shows a crowd breaking down a fence to gain entry to the festival, without being checked for vaccination or a negative test.

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Lollapalooza organisers claimed 90 per cent of attendees showed vaccination cards proving they were fully inoculated, but vaccinated people can still transmit the virus and vaccination cards can be forged.

Chicago Tribune photo intern Vashon Jordan Jr, who covered the festival, said that fake vaccination cards were being used by some people, despite earlier warnings of “hefty fines and prison time” from the FBI.

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UNSW’s Professor McLaws said festival organisers should remember that COVID-19 vaccines weren’t 100 per cent effective.

In an op-ed published by Billboard, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said he was proud of this year’s event, but couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be COVID-19 infections.

“I’m not going to say that nobody is going to catch anything, because it’s beyond me, but I can tell you that we really set a course in the right direction — and for that, I’m happy,” he said.

How have other festivals fared?

Several COVID-19 cases have reportedly been linked to hip-hop festival Rolling Loud (also operated by Live Nation), which took place in Miami, Florida last month.

The event did not require attendees to wear masks, be vaccinated or show a negative test, in accordance with local laws, despite the state experiencing a spike in new cases and hospitalisations.

Rapper Dess Dior announced she had tested positive for COVID-19 after performing at Rolling Loud. As did some attendees who posted their positive results to social media.

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Last month in the Netherlands, unvaccinated people were allowed to attend the Verknipt music festival in Utrecht, as long as they had a negative test within 40 hours of entering.

There were 20,000 people in attendance with no masks or social distancing, and about 1,000 festival-goers are known to have become infected with COVID-19 over the two-day event.

An outlier last month was Serbia’s EXIT Festival, which welcomed about 45,000 people per day for four days, and recorded no COVID-19 infections according to a study published a week after the event.

All attendees were required to be fully vaccinated or return a negative test on entry.

A crowd of people dance at a music festival, with the crowd sweeping back into the distance
Serbia’s EXIT Festival required visitors be fully vaccinated or return a negative test on entry.(

Supplied

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What can Australia learn?

Countless Australian concert tours and festivals have been postponed or cancelled in recent months, including during the latest Delta outbreaks in major cities.

Live Nation’s Splendour in the Grass, one of Australia’s largest festivals, is still scheduled to take place in Byron Bay this November, after being cancelled last year and hosting a virtual event last month.

Live Nation, which holds a 30-year lease of Melbourne’s Palais Theatre, says it is working with health experts to design safe events.

Since May, the Palais Theatre has been in discussions with Professor McLaws, public health consultant Henning Liljeqvist and the Australian arm of Swiss healthcare company Roche Diagnostics about the design and application of various types of testing (including rapid antigen testing) both at home and at the concert venue.

“Palais Theatre is proud to lead the way back to live entertainment by working with leading health experts to investigate various testing protocols so we can connect fans to the artists and events they love,” a Palais Theatre representative said.

A man raises his arms as he sits on someone's shoulders in the crowd of a music festival
Splendour in the Grass didn’t go ahead in 2020, but is scheduled to return this November.(

AAP: Regi Varghese

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Professor McLaws said that in an ideal world, all concert-goers would have to undergo a rapid antigen test when entering an event, and anyone who tested positive would need a secondary rapid PCR test to confirm that result.

She said social distancing was important, and masks may be necessary even in outdoor areas if people can’t distance.

“But you’ve got even less problems if you’ve got people who have tested negative, regardless if they’ve had the vaccine or not.

“Then you’ve really got a high probability that you’re dealing with a safe event.”

Professor McLaws said she was concerned public and private pathology companies were not endorsing rapid antigen tests, which were relatively low cost and had been approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.

She said it was a positive thing that Live Nation wanted to continue to host events with public health in mind.

“Concerts can be done safely, but it does take some planning,” she said.

Other music festivals such as Byron Bay Bluesfest and the Mundi Mundi Bash are still up in the air, amid the latest New South Wales Delta outbreak.

Byron Bay Bluesfest organisers hoped their event could go ahead in October after being cancelled for two consecutive years, but they could not confirm it was going to happen, they said in a statement this week.

“As the clusters begin to pop up in more places and continue to grow exponentially, a reschedule of our October event is becoming ever more likely,” they said.

“With the current situation, we are not confident that we can deliver a safe and successful event in October — and, in the end, that’s the bottom line.”

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Queensland’s Gympie Music Muster was recently cancelled for the second year in a row, as interstate borders closed amid the growing crisis in New South Wales.

North Queensland’s Groovin The Moo has also been cancelled twice, and its spin-off event Fresh Produce isn’t going ahead either.

Testing, masks and zoning may be key

Last month, Spanish scientists researching COVID-19 at an indoor concert with 5,000 people without physical distancing found that same-day rapid testing, the use of face masks and improved ventilation led to very low rates of transmission.

Of the 4,584 attendees who were analysed, six cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the two weeks following the concert.

Three of the cases were believed to have been caught after the event, while one person potentially attended the concert during their incubation period.

The source of the other two cases couldn’t be identified.

Professor McLaws said there was no need for concern about COVID-19 spreading at music events if strict public health measures, including masks and same-day rapid testing, were in place.

She said zoning at festivals could also allow organisers to identify those at risk of contracting COVID-19, if someone in a certain zone was to test positive after the event.

US braces for more major events

Chicago is still set to host large music events such as Pitchfork Music Festival and Riot Fest next month.

For both festivals, attendees would need to be fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative test in order to enter.

In the same month, New York City will become the first US city to enforce a vaccine mandate for certain public events, with concert-goers required to show proof of at least partial vaccination before entering an indoor venue.

It’s a move Dr Landon from the University of Chicago hopes will be adopted in her city, where officials show no plans to tighten their restrictions.