“Is it safe?” That’s the number-one question I hear repeatedly as Lollapalooza 2021 begins—a question with no simple answer. Well, that’s not entirely true: The simple answer would be, “No,” as the hordes of mostly young, maskless attendees swarm the festival’s various stages, hooting and hollering, and generally spraying their aerosol-like germs at the nearby bodies in these tightly-packed crowds. (You can read up on what Chicago’s top doctors are recommending, including one of the most prominent who is now saying the event should’ve been canceled or imposed stiffer restrictions.) Yes, there are some safety demands, requiring either proof of vaccination at entry or a negative COVID test within 72 hours prior to arrival, followed by a mask to be worn for all the unvaccinated folks. But that last part is the equivalent of a pinkie swear, and during the hours that I spend at Lollapalooza day one, I see fewer masked attendees than I do people dressed in see-through underwear. If the nationwide vaccination rates are any indication, there are an awful lot of unvaxxed people going maskless today.
But that’s by choice—people who are presumably vaguely aware of the risks and decided to say “Fuck it.” What about the people for whom this isn’t fun, but a job? Whether it was the artists performing, the grounds crew working the fields, or the vendors serving up food and drink, the concerns over safely being part of a massive event during a time of rising COVID rates (thanks to the Delta variant and the far-too-common problem of still-unvaccinated people) inevitably run up against the harsh necessities of needing to make a living. Luckily, it seems, most of these folks have figured out a way to keep themselves safe. If only that were the case for those shirtless folks pogoing up and down in front of the stages.
Chicago band Post Animal kicked things off for the Tito’s stage, and despite it being an opening slot at 12:30 p.m., there’s already a giant crowd on the northeast corner of the festival grounds. As band member Dalton Allison notes with surprise after the rousing and energizing set, the fans greeted the band with “a roar like at a Cubs game.” It’s Post Animal’s first proper live show after a year-and-a-half of shutdown, and the group was obviously riding high on the experience. “Really trippy,” guitarist Matt Williams says. “We were all keeping our expectations low, but it was great.” But even amid the celebratory vibe of returning to what they do best, the bandmates share some uncertainties. “I mean, we’re all vaccinated,” Allison says, “I just hope that everybody—especially when they get together, or go into stores and stuff during their time in Chicago—is responsible. Our exposure, being outside and onstage, is pretty low, but if someone contracts it, goes back to a rural area they’re from…” he trails off, even as he earns nods of agreement.
“We’re trying to be as mindful as possible,” says guitarist/keyboardist Jake Hirshland, “listening to experts, being careful. We’re ready to go back on the music if it’s deemed unsafe. We’re taking it one day at a time.” The band members all agree that there’s a certain security in being able to get on stage, play, and get off, without much worry of having to interact in close quarters with other people, something I suggest I’m already uncomfortable with here. “I’m with you,” says guitarist Javi Reeves. “I don’t want to risk anything.” “We were really careful all throughout,” Hirshland says, “We didn’t pod the band together during quarantine, because we all live with other people, and that’d be a lot of people in contact with one another—through the band— who aren’t necessarily comfortable with that. So we’re happy to compromise what we’d ideally want in order to keep people safe… this show, at least for us, felt pretty safe.”
That seems to be the wary consensus among music-industry folks regarding festivals. They want everything to be safe, but as a prime factor in their own income, fests offer a simpler—and surer—alternative to touring. Michelle Cable, head of Panache Booking and manager for acts like Mac DeMarco and King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, agrees. “There’s so much unknown in the future of touring, and even just playing shows locally. From the perspective of most of the artists I work with, a music festival that’s outdoors seems a lot safer than touring. Especially because everything is so divided with touring—every state or county will have different rules and regulations for that venue—an outdoor event seems less transmissable, as well as safer economically. I imagine if you get infected with COVID and you’re on the road, you have to quarantine, which could really hurt you financially.”
There’s more sense of control, in other words, with a festival, despite the large-scale nature of the event and the fact that an artist is only one small part of the overall production. “Festivals can choose how they want to be controlling this,” Cable adds. “Artists have a simpler time opting in or not to those one-off situations. And anyone, I think, would feel safer outdoors than indoors, since you can figure out how you want to social distance outside.” It’s a solid point, and one that seems to suggest that Lollapalooza and other upcoming festivals will go on as planned. Of course, that would imply people are social distancing to help stay safe—something which, outside of a handful of people on the margins of each stage, there’s been remarkably little of at Lolla thus far.
The performers have an extra layer of protection afforded them, for the most part. But I was curious what feelings about safety were held by the people who are actually be putting themselves on the grounds, whether working concessions or guiding foot traffic. For them, it seems, safety is more of a concern. But simultaneously, they’re less worried about working these massive outdoor festivals than you may suspect, in large part because, more often than not, they are in a safer position than most of the festivalgoers.
“No, I’m not too worried,” said Deb, the manager of Pie Life, a Chicago pizza company working Lollapalooza this year. (Last names of employees and attendees are being omitted at the request of the interviewees.) “We’re vaxxed and wearing masks, and being inside [our own building on the festival grounds] helps keep some distance.” Grace, one of her employees, chimes in: “Plus, there’s a table between us and the people here, which creates some safe distance—and I’m wearing a mask anyway. There’s a lot of people coming through here today, and I don’t even want to catch a cold, let alone COVID.” Deb explains that Lollapalooza throughly laid out their safety protocols to the business, but even without those rules, the physical barriers between the Pie Life employees and the paying crowds establishes a sense of security.
It’s a sense of security that other workers and vendors aren’t always afforded. Dominick, who’s working one of the cocktail lounges scattered around the fest, tells me that while he’s not worried about his safety, that’s largely because he’s keeping his mask on from the moment he sets foot on the grounds to the time he leaves at night. “There might be people here who have [COVID], but I’m not too concerned,” he says through what looks like a very thick mask. (And sounds like it, too, given how muffled his voice is). This is a refrain I hear often from workers I talk to during the opening day—they feel safe, but that’s largely because they’re not taking any chances, despite the added benefit of being outdoors, where the risk of transmission is lower.
Unfortunately, that condition isn’t true for everyone at Lollapalooza. Barely an hour after the festival has opened it’s gates, the gigantic Lolla Shop (where festival-branded shirts and more are sold) is full of customers, filling the air-conditioned pop-up tent with sweaty, breathing bodies. The checkout line practically has people falling on top of one another to make their purchases, which, given the overwhelming lack of clothing (roughly one-third of all attendees I see today are either clad in underwear, swimsuits, or some combination thereof), creates an intimacy and overlap of personal space roughly akin to that of an orgy. Renee, an employee who is working the Lolla Shop tent all day, eyes it warily.
“Of course, I’m nervous,” she tells me, as festivalgoers thread themselves through and past each other with a maximum of skin contact. “I’m vaccinated, and I’m wearing a mask anytime I’m inside here, though not out there”—she gestures to the open-air area behind the tent, where she restocks merchandise without any attendees to crowd her space—“so it should be okay.” Still, she acknowledges the crush of bodies inside the tent, no matter how large it is, causes some concern. “I mean, working over there would be… a lot,” she says, pointing to the checkout line, with its throngs of pressed-together, often whooping guests. “I wouldn’t want to be doing that.” The transition from the safer outdoor areas to the compressed indoor one doesn’t seem to be on the mind of too many people eager to buy a shirt. Of course, most of them also seem to have little to no problems crowding together in front of a stage, either.
Christian French is just finishing up his set on the smaller “Lake Shore” stage, and staring wide-eyed at the mosh pit that has opened up in front of him. “Holy shit,” he marvels, at a sight that has been absent from most people’s lives for far too long. And that feeling continues, through act after act, crowds responding like long-lost relatives to everyone who takes the stage, happy just to be there, to be allowed to be there. “You guys are awesome. This is very fun,” says Dayglow singer Sloan Struble, and it’s hard not to imagine every performer today thinking, “Same.” They’ve been waiting a long time to do this, and for most musicians, playing live is literally the primary reason they do what they do.
That “very fun” mentality is overwhelmingly shared by the crowd. Of the people I speak to, often dressed (or undressed, as the case may be) in loud, colorful costumes, they all agree that just being here is a treat. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” says one possibly drunk guy who substitutes a handstand for giving me his name, as several friends laugh and egg him on. “I’m just really happy to finally get back to seeing live music,” says Katie, a very nice person slathered in body paint. “I missed the feeling of being a crowd, everyone having a good time together.” Variations on this theme are offered up by the half-dozen or so other folks I talk to as well, but when I gingerly broach the question of safety, responses range from dismissive to defensive. “I’m vaxxed, bro,” drunk guy offers up, “so it’s all good.” Katie hems and haws before saying, “I think the requirements that everyone be vaccinated or test negative should make it okay. I know there’s the Delta variant, but it’s still unlikely you’ll get it.” Another festivalgoer, James, puts it more bluntly: “Look, it’s as safe as they can make it. Life has to go on, you know?” It’s not perfect, they all seem to reason, but if they feel safe, everyone should.
Unfortunately, there’s just not many ways to feel very safe here. The crowds have doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled at every single stage as the day has progressed, and it’s getting hard to find a spot comfortably distant from others where you can watch the artists, unless you’re willing to be half a football field away. Obviously, most of the kids moshing—and by extension, everyone surrounding them in the crowd—has made their own risk-versus-reward assessment, and decided that a chance for some joyous revelry, and collective communion with others, is worth the threat of COVID.
Unfortunately, that’s not a responsible decision—not really, anyway, if you understand the threat isn’t just to you. Unless everyone here who’s unmasked and breathing in each other’s faces is willing to isolate for the next week and a half, chances are someone is going to get infected and spread that infection to someone else, probably someone who doesn’t even realize they’re coming into contact with the virus. The United States, over the past 16 months, has proven itself a very dangerous place for compassion. Who knows? Maybe there won’t be many new infections from this festival. Maybe it’ll be the test case that proves outdoor gatherings—even ones with masses of people smashed together—pose minimal threat of transmission. That would be nice. But right now, we have no fucking clue, and with the highly contagious Delta variant on the rise, the odds seem worse than they did even two weeks ago.
So eventually, I throw in the towel. It’s around the time that Jimmy Eat World is launching into a spirited dinnertime set, and despite my nostalgia for a band of my youth, the people continually bumping into me even at my remote perch are dissolving my will. I had hoped to stick around (to see Kim Petras, and then Miley Cyrus, god love her) but it’s not worth the risk of long COVID—or even short COVID. Until vaccination mandates, and possibly mask mandates, are in place for festivals like this—are in place for everything, really—even one person dying, just because the rest of us wouldn’t curb our desire to mosh without a face covering, is too many. The past year-plus of protests for racial justice have proven that collective masking can make massive outdoor gatherings COVID-safe. Mass vaccination has proven to precipitously drop the rate of infections in a community. A combination of both? Hell, we could have Lollapalooza every weekend. And I’d be front and center in the pit.