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Lollapalunacy? Experts split on whether jammed music fest is ‘bad idea’ or ‘basically OK’ as COVID-19 cases quadruple

“Lolla is too crowded. That’s the bottom line,” said University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon. “A bunch of people are going to get COVID at Lolla, but a lot of people are getting it from other places now, too.”

Fans enjoy Day 3 of Lollapalooza in Grant Park in 2019.
Fans enjoy Day 3 of Lollapalooza in Grant Park in 2019.
Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

COVID-19 cases have almost quadrupled across Illinois over the past month, nearly a quarter of counties have hit a coronavirus warning level, and more patients are filling hospital wards.

Troubling figures released Friday by the Illinois Department of Public Health suggest the state’s latest coronavirus surge is showing no signs of letting up days before daily crowds of 100,000 and up descend on Grant Park for Lollapalooza.

City officials have insisted the massive festival will be safe — and Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he’ll be there himself — but University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon called it “a bad idea” to move forward with the jam-packed event, especially with the more infectious Delta variant looming.

“Lolla is too crowded. That’s the bottom line,” she said, acknowledging odds are slim Mayor Lori Lightfoot would pull the plug on the lucrative attraction.

“It’s about harm reduction. You have to make the decision for yourself. These cases that happen because of Lolla aren’t likely to be a huge drag on the health care system. But will we see a bump? Yes, and Delta will probably make it higher,” Landon said.

“A bunch of people are going to get COVID at Lolla, but a lot of people are getting it from other places now, too.”

Fans attend Day 2 of Lollapalooza in Grant Park in 2019.
Fans attend Day 2 of Lollapalooza in Grant Park in 2019.
Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

They’re getting it across the state, especially in downstate counties with lower vaccination rates. Cases started rising a few weeks after the state fully reopened June 11.

Nearly 8,000 Illinoisans tested positive over the past week alone, an average of 1,140 new cases every day. The state was logging just 294 cases per day at the start of the month, and 238 per day in mid-June.

Since then, the average statewide case positivity rate has increased fivefold, from a pandemic low of 0.6% up to 3.3% — the highest it’s been since the first week of May. Hospitals were treating 670 coronavirus patients Thursday night, the most they’ve seen since early June.

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

State public health officials on Friday singled out 25 of the state’s 102 counties for being at a coronavirus warning level. DuPage is the first Chicago-area county to land on that list in several months, due to an increase in hospital visits for COVID-like symptoms.

Most of the other warning-level counties are in central and southern Illinois, where vaccination rates are sometimes less than half the statewide rate. About 72% of all Illinoisans have gotten a shot, with about 56% fully vaccinated.

Counties marked orange are considered at a COVID-19 warning level.
Counties marked orange are considered at a COVID-19 warning level.
Illinois Department of Public Health

Even though Lollapalooza takes place in the heart of Chicago, it could have a devastating impact on far-flung areas, said Landon, who urged attendees to “assume you’ve been exposed” and get tested afterward.

“It can amplify the spread in areas with low vaccination rates. The people who go home to some south suburbs, to central Illinois, to Missouri — they’re going to set off little wildfires,” she said.

But as far as personal risk, Lollapalooza “can be done safely,” according to Dr. Vishnu Chundi, chairman of the Chicago Medical Society’s COVID-19 Task Force.

“Outdoors is the safest place you can do it,” Chundi said. “If you’re vaccinated, you’re safe. If you’re vaccinated and masked, you’re really safe. If you’re not vaccinated and not masked, you’re not safe.”

Attendees at the four-day music festival, which opens Thursday, have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from within three days of entrance, according to Lollapalooza.

Anyone who is unvaccinated will be required to wear a mask while attending the event. And even those who got the shot are urged to consider masking up.

Chundi said the check-in process could actually result in more transmission than other parts of the fest.

“The bathrooms themselves are porta-potties, the vendors, they’re open-air — that all is basically OK. It’s getting huge crowds of people in and then getting them out of these choke points that causes concern,” he said.

Thousands of music fans arrive in Grant Park for the first day of Lollapalooza in 2019.
Thousands of music fans arrive in Grant Park for the first day of Lollapalooza in 2019.
Erin Brown/Sun-Times file

Still, Chundi said the likelihood of Lollapalooza turning into a super-spreader event “is very low.” He expects cases to keep rising in the short term no matter what.

“You’ve got 30,000 people going to Sox games, Cubs games and soon Bears games. In the U.S., we’ve decided the decision about getting vaccinated is your personal responsibility and your right. That’s getting us into some trouble,” Chundi said.

“If we could get everyone to just mandate vaccination, we could get out of this whole mess. But that needs to happen at a national level. … It’s not rocket science. Everyone knows how this works by now.”