CHICAGO — Chicago’s top health official announced Thursday that roughly 200 Lollapalooza attendees have tested positive for COVID-19 so far in the aftermath of the four-day music festival, but she said there’s no indication the controversial event was a “superspreader.”
“There’s no evidence at this point of a superspreader event, and there’s no evidence of substantial impact to Chicago’s COVID epidemiology,” said Chicago’s public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
So far, there have been no coronavirus deaths or hospitalizations linked to Lollapalooza, which drew a crowd of about 385,000 to Grant Park, she said.
The outbreak of 203 cases included 127 attendees who had been vaccinated and 76 attendees who had not been immunized; 58 of the positive cases were Chicago residents, 138 lived elsewhere in Illinois and seven had traveled from out of state, Arwady said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other city officials have faced much criticism for going forward with the event, as the highly infectious delta variant of the virus continues to spread nationwide.
The festival was dubbed on many social media sites as #Deltapalooza, with some accusing the city of putting the lucrative musical festival above the health and safety of residents.
Physicians and various local health departments urged participants to get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible following the event. Many health experts feared the event — which attracted out-of-state visitors from potential COVID-19 hot spots — would spur a spike in cases.
“From my perspective, if you were at Lollapalooza, you should be masking and self-quarantining to keep other people safe, vaccinated or not.,” Dr. Marc Sala, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine, told the Chicago Tribune recently. “My take is that if you were at Lollapalooza, you have to assume you were exposed to (the virus) and should behave as such to protect those around you.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker had been scheduled to attend Lollapalooza but then backpedaled at the last minute, citing the spread of the variant.
The festival required attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the previous three days; city officials have said more than 90 percent of attendees were vaccinated, though there were some reports of people being waved in without a thorough document check. Some festivalgoers believed entrance checks were too quick to be thorough.
During the festival, a mask requirement was imposed, but only for indoor spaces. Masks were distributed at some locations.
Some participants reported that mask guidelines were generally ignored in indoor spaces such as bathrooms, despite signs posted at these locations.
Photos of the event showed crowds of maskless fans pressed shoulder to shoulder. Festival attendees also described crowded trains heading to the event and media reports documented many maskless riders taking public transportation to and from the festival.
Yet Arwady said the initial COVID-19 numbers associated with the July 29 to Aug. 1 event were in line with what she and other city health officials had expected to see.
“Clearly with hundreds of thousands of people attending Lollapalooza, we would expect to see some cases,” she said.
The majority who have tested positive at this point had symptoms of COVID-19, though some were asymptomatic; 79 percent were under the age of 30, she said.
Thirteen of those people came to Lollapalooza even though they were sick, attending on or after the day their symptoms began, despite the event urging folks to stay home if ill.
“We need everyone in Chicago not to ignore symptoms or assume it’s a summer cold regardless of your vaccination status, because we know vaccines are not 100 percent protective. Unfortunately in this case these were folks who were largely vaccinated and therefore assumed they didn’t have COVID.”
Arwady said the analysis attempted to cast a wide net, including anyone who was diagnosed with coronavirus on or after attending Lollapalooza, though it’s impossible to tell if the virus was contracted at the event or other possible exposure points.
She said 17 percent of those who tested positive listed other higher-risk exposures around the same time as the event, such as bars or travel.
“These cases may or may not have resulted from transmission at Lolla itself,” she said. “We’ve been very broad here. Anyone who is potentially associated, we want to investigate.”
Arwady said the health department has been investigating and contact tracing any cases linked to Lollapalooza, and the city put out a national request to public health officials for cases stemming from the event as well.
City officials also follow emergency room data and had a specific tag for Lollapalooza attendees admitted to hospital emergency rooms, because every year there are hospitalizations for substance use issues or heat-related conditions, Arwady said.
The city expanded this analysis for two weeks post-Lollapalooza, due to the pandemic, but “did not see increases or additional cases coming in through the emergency department,” she said.
Arwady added that in a survey, younger participants reported that attending the festival was motivation to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We know attending events like this can be a good incentive for vaccination,” she said.
The city’s positivity rate is about 3.8 percent. While the rate has been growing and cases are on the rise, both are still far lower than large swaths of the country where COVID-19 is raging such as Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida.
Arwady said that if the region’s COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations were more akin to those in New Orleans, for instance, the city likely would not have held Lollapalooza or other large public gatherings.
Luis Cortez said he traveled from the Minneapolis area to attend all four days of the festival, and thought Lollapalooza did a “satisfactory job” of informing attendees on COVID-19 requirements and procedures; he added that masks were handed out at the event, though the quality of some of the vaccine card checks at the entrance “varied.”
Cortez, who was vaccinated in January, said he took a rapid COVID-19 test nine days after arriving in Chicago and, after returning to his state, stayed home for a few days as a precaution. Although the test was negative, he said he might take another if necessary.
“I believe responsibility is meant to be met in the middle where event planners make an effort to take precautions and plan accordingly, just like the event attendees should do the same,” he said.
April Hanson said she attended one day of Lollapalooza, and felt safe, because she is vaccinated and believes the festival did a good job making sure other attendees were either vaccinated or had recently tested negative.
But she took a COVID-19 test a few days later and tested negative; she urged anyone else who attended to also get tested.
“I wish the festival and the city would have pushed getting tested when you got home to stop the spread, because it’s inevitable there will be cases of COVID that come from concertgoers,” she said.
Although Chicago resident Aleksandra Stamenkovich loves live music, she did not attend the festival due to fear for her health and safety.
She said she was “appalled at the greed and disregard for public safety that was Lollapalooza.”
Stamenkovich said she has worked in retail during the pandemic and was unable to work from home, like many, to stay safer.
“It feels as if I am suiting up to go to war every morning when I leave for work,” she said. “The pandemic is far from over. … I am saddened by the lack of leadership that allowed this to happen, after a year of doing all the right things.”
Story by Angie Leventis Lourgos.