Health experts question the new Coachella COVID vaccination policy

Two months ago, concert promoter AEG Presents announced a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy for all of its shows — including Goldenvoice’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Many fans of the music party tent live event cheered on the decision.

“I appreciated that they said they wanted the safest atmosphere possible for their attendees,” said Jason Feffer, a 35-year-old from LA who has attended the festival every year since 2012. He helped moderate the popular Coachella Reddit forum with a few other dedicated fans and praised AEG’s agenda-setting vaccination policy for concerts.

But on Tuesday, when Goldenvoice suddenly went back to Coachella’s policy only for vaccination and on Instagram announced that evidence of a negative test within 72 hours could also be used to get attendance, the same fans did not quite know what to make of it . The event, which was planned for the weekends 15.-17. April and 22.-24. April, was long sold out, so the overwhelming ticket sales were not a factor. The show stays six months away — plenty of time for the COVID-19 epidemic to worsen once again.

Feffer, on the other hand, felt confused, even let down.

“After taking such a strong stance, it’s a little cowardly for them to make that change,” he said. Although “the festival will still be reasonably safe, I feel betrayed watching my favorite festival make a complete 180.”

If anything is certain about COVID-19, especially the highly contagious Delta variant, it is that the situation could change rapidly. Another winter increase in cases is possible.

Was Goldenvoice’s decision a welcome confirmation that outdoor music festivals are generally safe? An attempt to strengthen an ever-violent concert industry? When is the right time to relax the security standards for a global event that will be thrown in the spring?

“This was always an open policy, and we looked at the data and enjoyed running them for outdoor festivals,” an AEG spokesman told The Times. “Our policy was that we planned to follow the data. We got there faster than we thought. ”

Dr. Annette Regan, professor of epidemiology at UCLA, said vaccination is still the gold standard for ensuring safety.

“Vaccination is the best way to prevent getting COVID-19. “If a concert has a group of unvaccinated people in a crowded room – even outdoors – it can lead to outbreaks,” she said. “While we may have been lucky with other concert events, we can look at the Verknipt Music Festival in the Netherlands over the last summer as an example where similar policies did not work. They required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entry, and still the concert resulted in over 1,000 new COVID-19 cases.

“A negative test 72 hours before the event does not indicate that the person is COVID-free,” she added. “They may be too early in the disease to detect it and may still be infected and able to spread during the concert.”

Overall, COVID-19 numbers have seen major improvements in California. Two-thirds of Californians are at least partially vaccinated, and cases are 29.5% lower than two weeks ago. Hospitalizations have fallen 24.5% in the same period. Below applicable policy for outdoor “mega-events” for more than 10,000 people, California recommends proof of vaccination or a recent negative test and requires masks for unvaccinated people when indoors.

Major outdoor festivals like July’s three-day Lollapalooza in Chicago, which had a vaccine-or-negative test policy, enjoyed low transfer rates, with only 203 cases linked to the festival out of 400,000 attendees. While the Verknipt Festival resulted in many positive tests after following similar rules in July, other outdoor festivals, such as Goldenvoice’s Firefly in Delaware, not significant vectors for COVID-19. Goldenvoice’s Day N ‘Vegas, a hip-hop festival in November headed by Kendrick Lamar, has also adopted a vaccine-or-negative test rule.

Rapper Travis Scott crowdsurfs during a live performance.

Travis Scott will be one of the headlines at the 2022 Coachella Festival.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Back on August 12, Jay Marciano, President and CEO of AEG Presents, announced the company’s vaccination policy solely to the applause of the music industry.

“We have come to the conclusion that as a market leader it was up to us to take a real stand on vaccination status,” he said. “I am confident and hopeful that at the end of the day we will be on the right side of the story and do what’s best for artists, fans and live event workers.”

Tuesday’s policy change surprised many in Coachella’s passionate fan base, who have been looking forward to featured acts including Rage Against the Machine and Travis Scott for two years. Some fans – those with underlying medical conditions, for example, or simply those with an abundance of caution – may now have a different idea of ​​attending the festival, where the possibility of unvaccinated guests is now at stake.

“There is a careful balance between respect for individual rights and the protection of public health,” said Dr. Regan. “So I imagine that the organizers had a hard time with this decision. In the end, attending a major music festival is a personal choice, not a right, and in my opinion, I think it’s fair to require vaccination. Especially since we know that vaccination will offer the best protection. ”

AEG’s only wax policy still applies to its other concerts nationwide, except where prohibited by local law. Live Nation, the nation’s largest concert promoter, also requires vaccines or recent negative tests for all of its shows, except where it is banned by state governments.

A spokesman for the public health department in Riverside County, home of the Indio Empire Polo Grounds where Coachella is being held, said in a statement to The Times that the county “has followed state health guidelines and recommendations throughout this pandemic; and major events such as Coachella and Stagecoach is permitted under the existing guidelines. ”

Andrew Austin, a 38-year-old Angeleno who has been with Coachella since 2007 (and who works with the Coachella Reddit board with Feffer), said he went to Chicago’s Lollapalooza and that the media “was afraid of telescopes of large crowds. But they had a pretty robust screening area, and only about 200 people tested positive from the festival. ”

“If Coachella had said ‘it’s going to be a free one for everyone,’ we would be the first to fire back,” he said. “But with festivals like Lollapalooza being successful this summer, I think it gave people more confidence.”

Although Coachella is still sold out on both weekends, there are still many tickets available for Coachella’s country music cousin Stagecoach with the headlines Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood and Luke Combs.

Even beyond the rationale for public health, a sense that a beloved cultural institution like Coachella can accommodate vaccine stops feels disappointing to some.

“Many festivals and events have gone just fine with the vaccine / evidence of negative test policy,” Feffer admits. He expects 2022’s Coachella to move forward in the same way. But still, “it feels like a slap in the face.”

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