Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Last weekend in Chicago, the music festival Lollapalooza was the hottest ticket in town. A crowd of roughly 100,000 people packed into the city's Grant Park for each day of the festival where they partied like it was 2019. Headliners included Young Thug, Megan Thee Stallion, and Tyler, the Creator.
Tyler the Creator: Lollopalooza. It's Lollapalooza but I like saying Lollo, whatever. This feels crazy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to festival organizers, 90% of attendees last Thursday showed proof of vaccination, and the rest of the crowd brought documentation of negative COVID tests. With the Delta variant continuing to pose a threat nationwide, health experts say that being in a tightly packed crowd is quite risky, regardless of vaccination status. Here's what WNYC health and science editor Nsikan Akpan told Brian Lehrer on Tuesday.
Nsikan Akpan: I attended Lollapalooza, this is in 2007, and I remember seeing Radiohead, and they did this thing where they dropped the barriers right before the show started and everybody just rushed forward and you're packed in, and I could barely breathe. In that situation, Delta is going to find a way to get from nose to nose. 80, 90% of outdoor scenarios are probably completely safe because you're going to be far enough away from people to be fine but if you're really, really packed into a tight space, then, yes, you're giving the virus a better chance of spreading outdoors.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lollapalooza is just one of many major music festivals planned for this year. Bonnaroo, Made in America, and Governor's Ball all remain on the calendar for the moment. While musicians are badly in need of a break after a year of practically no live concerts, whether these massive festivals are worth the risk is another matter.
Joining me now to discuss is Jim DeRogatis, co-host of Sound Opinions, a nationally syndicated radio show. Jim is also associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, and a long-time music critic. Jim, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Jim DeRogatis: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Kim Bellware, a reporter covering national and breaking news for The Washington Post. She was recently reporting on music festivals happening amid the pandemic. Kim, thank you for being here.
Kim Bellware: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kim, you went to and reported on the festival last Thursday. How did it just feel to be around people and music and fun?
Kim Bellware: In this situation, it felt a little nerve-wracking. It was all of the things that these festivals typically are. It was hot, it was crowded. There was no small amount of confusion. I went just one day on the first day to report and I did the entire process that people with general admission would do and standing in line and buying a ticket and going through those checkpoints. It was a lot of people and not a lot of distancing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Were there masks?
Kim Bellware: In a word, no. I think I counted throughout the entire day, this is including attendees, including staff, volunteers, ballpark range, maybe 40 to 60 masks the entire day. The early numbers for attendance was about 380,000 people in attendance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you were going through the general admission process, how closely were the staff of the festival checking those vaccination cards?
Kim Bellware: In my experience when I went through, I had my vaccination card in a kind of laminated pocket, and the person at the checkpoint barely gave it a passing glance. As I was showing it to him, another woman ran alongside me and threw up her arms and whooped in the air because nobody even looked, and then she made it to the next checkpoint where they check your bags, which was a more thorough inspection and nobody stopped her. In the one experience that I saw, it was not strong. I did talk to other festival-goers and they did say that they felt that their records or their negative tests were scrutinized.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jim, what did the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and maybe also the Illinois governor say about why they let this proceed?
Jim DeRogatis: They never gave a clear reason, not based on science anyway. The mayor kept saying she thought it was safe. The chief health official in the city of Chicago, Dr. Allison Arwady was backing her up. Meanwhile, we had great infectious disease specialists like Dr. Emily Landon, chief of infectious disease at University of Chicago all over the media saying "this is a terrible idea".
It seemed to me that the mayor in her desire to assuage downtown businesses, fill the hotels, fill the restaurants was not recognizing the cultural difference of a festival like Lollapalooza with 100,000 a day of a particular demographic versus Wrigley Field or Sox stadium filling up for a baseball game, 40,000, if it's maxed.
This is not a controlled venue. Lollapalooza, Grant Park is 1.3 miles from tip to tip. We saw a video online of gatecrashing. We saw a video of what Kim was describing. Some people having their cards scrutinized and others just being waved in. The mayor who had a press conference after the festival was asked about Lollapalooza. She kept being asked. She said, "Well, 90% was vaccinated." A reporter stood up from the Chicago Tribune and asked where does that figure come from? She said it comes from a tweet by Lollapalooza's promoters.
That's not science. We didn't see any evidence of how they were logging vaccinations. There was no electronic database or anything like that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm so happy that you clarify that number because I thought 90% would basically make that the most vaccinated space in America. Particularly given how young everyone is, that might be actually all the vaccinated young people in the country in that space. That's helpful to understand that that's probably more like self-attestation of being vaccinated rather than any kind of clear evidence of it.
Jim DeRogatis: The number is fake and I think, again, cultural difference, we're not realizing how closely packed those people were literally on top of each other at the front of the stage, sometimes for hours before the act they wanted to see. Tyler, the Creator drew a tremendous crowd, and so those people are on top of each other and there was a stage diving and there was slamming or body surfing, real close physical contact.
The vaccines are 95% effective, but even 5% of a crowd of 100,000, 1% of a crowd of 100,000, we're talking about significant number of infections. The scientist, Dr. Arwady, while agreeing with the mayor that it should happen, was saying, "Oh, there will almost certainly be infections coming out of this." That's not acceptable. I don't think, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kim, let me come to this. Is there an argument to be made? I absolutely hear Jim's argument about all the public health reasons why we shouldn't have the festivals. Is there an argument to be made for why we should?
Kim Bellware: The infectious disease experts that I've been talking to over the past month, they were pretty clear to say, let's not think of this in terms of are music festivals safe or unsafe, because safe implies you won't get infected and that's just not something that you can guarantee unless you stay home. They said look at it on a spectrum of risk. That includes what the factors on the ground are. How many people around you are vaccinated? How much space is there? How much are people masking? Then what are your own vulnerabilities? Do you live in a household where there are unvaccinated children, where there are people with comorbidities and that kind of thing?
When I asked these experts, just personally, them speaking as individuals, "What would you do? What activities are you doing?" They either said I would not go to a festival like this with the conditions that we described or they said I would go if I could control certain factors like everybody around me is vaccinated. They also said that having these safety precautions is better than nothing.
The Rolling Loud music festival in Miami that happened just two weeks ago, that didn't have any restrictions whatsoever. They said, "We're going to leave it up to people. They can make up their own mind." Now Lollapalooza, they were requiring proof of vaccination, and if you're not vaccinated, a negative test within 72 hours of entry, notable that they had changed that number several times, it had been 24 hours, 72 and 48 hours.
They didn't offer a lot of clarity on what that meant as far as can you present one negative test and you're good for all four days? Or do you have to do it on a rolling basis so that 72-hour window is always fresh? They also said, if you're not vaccinated, then you need to be masked up in the festival, which all of these things comport with science, but not with actual human behavior and definitely not with how music festivals run.
The one thing too about this behavior is nothing that I saw was out of the ordinary, which means it was all predictable. The crowds and people being very fashion-conscious and squeezing together for photos and hugging and drinking and all of that. This happens every single year at Lollapalooza. The fact that they were hoping the honor system would be in place, that definitely makes it much higher risk in the estimation of these infectious disease experts.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jim, let me-- because I agree. As I listened to both of you speak, I was thinking, "Yes, that sounds like a music festival." Just sounds like what happened in 2017, '18, '19, obviously, they were in a different moment, but again, I'm wondering-- you mentioned the downtown business interests, undoubtedly, the mayor and the governor's political interests. Is there any good reason for allowing this to go forward by simply saying, "Look, a year and a half into a pandemic, people simply do know what the risks are here, and if they're making that choice, that's the choice they're making?"
Jim DeRogatis: The other negative impact besides people getting sick, Melissa, is every music venue in the city that has struggled to hold on after 14 or 15 months darkness, where they could not be open, they were shut down since last March. The Save Our Stages money approved by Congress, I think it's three months ago now, still has not flowed to these small music venues and theaters and other cultural institutions, although it was approved.
They're lucky to be alive today. They are trepidatiously reopening now with far more diligent mass requirements and vaccination checks. Many are banning. If you are not vaccinated, no tests, you're not allowed. You're not coming in. Metro in Chicago, 1,200 capacity just announced that yesterday. My fear is that if the Delta infections at Lollapalooza and reopening too big too fast cause another spike, we're going to see not only music venues but bars and restaurants, who are holding on by the skin of their teeth, just reopening have to close again.
My concern is not four days of a corporate festival that invades Chicago once a year, it is those 365 days a year cultural institutions. New York has them. Chicago has them. We're lucky to still have them at this point in time in 2021.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For me, that is perhaps the strongest-- Certainly, human health is at the top, but that argument feels to me like one that could actually be sold for a politician. For someone who is running for office, for someone who is representing the people to be able to make an argument about the long-term viability of music venues, of gathering spaces for people who actually live in the city as opposed to festival-goers.
Don't get me wrong. I mean, New Orleans is my city and during parts of the year, it's like an all-time music festival. At the same time, it's really about the people who actually live there. Kim, while you were there, was anyone talking about that? Were there people in the crowd who you spoke with who felt a sense of maybe angst about the long-term impact of their presence at Lollapalooza?
Kim Bellware: No. I would say that a lot of the people that I talked to on Thursday were not from Chicago, they were from out of state, which means that they were getting on a plane and traveling there. Something that I know Jim has been critical of with the festival is that it's so big, and part of it is that it's a destination draw, but it also doesn't have the same community that is fostered by some of these smaller venues or smaller festivals.
I don't know that that was really on the minds of very many people because they don't exactly have a stake in what happens. One of the other things, too, I can't speak to the mindset of everybody at the festival, but something that I thought of, too, is what's the price that everybody else in Chicago who didn't go to Lollapalooza might have to pay for this large event?
I think the CTA workers, the hotel workers, the front-of-house staff at bars. When you saw photos of what happened after the festival, people are packed like sardines into the L cars on the CTA. Those are people who maybe they don't know anybody who is a bus driver or who is one of the train engineers, and maybe they don't care, but there was a real disconnect between some of the actions that were going on at the park and what the impact of those actions could be for everybody else in the city.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Exactly. On that question of impact, Jim, is there going to be an attempt to follow how these COVID cases look in the city over the course of the next two weeks in the aftermath of Lollapalooza, and will concert organizers be held accountable if there is a discernible spike?
Jim DeRogatis: The corporate owners, Live Nation, Ticketmaster, they're out of town already, and so are the C3 who owns Portion, they're the Texas promoters. I don't think the concert will be held accountable if we see large numbers of spiking cases. I think that Chicago will just be paying for it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jim DeRogatis is the co-host of Sound Opinions, a long-time music critic, and associate professor. Kim Bellware is a reporter covering national and breaking news for The Washington Post. Thank you both so much and be safe out there.
Jim DeRogatis: Thank you, Melissa.
Kim Bellware: Thanks for having us.
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