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How the COVID-19 delta variant could impact live events

Last year, countless concerts and live events were canceled. Here's what organizers are keeping in mind now with the rapid spread of coronavirus variants.

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Chicago's Lollapalooza music festival continued this summer, despite concerns about it becoming a COVID-19 superspreader event. With coronavirus testing measures in place, the city reported a low number of infections afterward.

Erika Goldring/WireImage/Getty

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a flurry of event cancellations and postponements. Now, over a year later, vaccines have allowed many events to resume, but the spread of the highly contagious delta variant is casting uncertainty over whether some in-person events will -- or should -- continue into the fall as planned.  

Take, for instance, Chicago music festival Lollapalooza, which hosted nearly 385,000 people last month. The internet was rife with criticism of the event continuing despite coronavirus fears, as there were concerns the music festival would be a superspreader event

Chicago's Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady shared in a tweet two weeks later that there was no evidence of a "superspreader event or substantial impact to Chicago's COVID-19 epidemiology." She also noted that more than 90% of attendees were vaccinated, just 0.04% of which later reported testing positive.

Still, reactions to Lollapalooza are reflective of a hesitancy among many people to resume with big events as COVID-19 variants ravage the globe. Other big gatherings have been pushed back to 2022, like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which was supposed to take place in October, and Justin Bieber's Justice World Tour, which was slated to kick off this summer.

"There [is] a lot more risk in anybody booking any live event between October and December, because the new variant is still unpredictable," says Clay Durant, CEO of entertainment consulting firm CAD Management, which advises brands, artists and content creators. Still, he says, with so many people eager to go back to live events after spending over a year in lockdowns, "There are always going to be people who are willing to take the risk." 

Lollapalooza's success, all things considered, could be a motivator for more planners to continue with scheduled events, Durant says, albeit with safety precautions such as vaccine requirements, negative COVID-19 tests and mask mandates. 

Dr. Bob Bollinger, infectious diseases professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says if more people get vaccinated and mask mandates are enforced indoors, it's likely we won't see another mass shutdown like we did in 2020. Enforcing these safety protocols will allow society to open up more quickly, he says, and will prevent variants from getting even worse.

The hybrid approach

The answer for many event planners, at least through the end of the year, is hybrid events, which allow for both in-person and online attendance. This can be a draw for companies that want to hedge their bets while also catering to a global audience, says Geoffrey Wellen, chief customer care officer of virtual events company 6Connex. He says inquiries about hosting virtual events have shot up at the company in the last couple of weeks, and "have begun to mimic what happened last year" when there were mass cancellations.

Whether more events get postponed or canceled in the coming months is also dependent on overall trends in the entertainment space, Wellen said. "What we found last year was when one domino fell, the rest began to fall," he added. "I imagine it's going to be similar this year."

People in the crowd at Lollapalooza 2021 in Chicago

Chicago's Lollapalooza music festival took place in early August, despite the delta variant.

Getty Images

Because the pandemic doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon, many companies are adopting safety measures while continuing with scheduled events, at least for now. Both Live Nation and AEG Presents said they'll be requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for attendees and event staff at US venues and festivals this fall. 

Where events will continue is also dependent on how a particular region is handling COVID-19, says Mike Schabel, CEO of Kiswe, which builds the tech powering digital events. Wherever cases are lowest is likely where festivals and concerts could continue. It'll also depend on whether individual artists feel comfortable bringing thousands of people together right now. 

"It's like threading a needle, and it changes every day," Schabel said. "There's no rulebook here that tells you what to do."

Because some audiences may still be hesitant to join large crowds right now, many live events in the coming months will likely be complemented by a virtual component, he says. That's something that'll probably stick around beyond the pandemic.

"This is going to become part of our entertainment repertoire," Schabel said. 

Keeping safety in mind

Choosing to go to a live event involves weighing the risks. Health experts urge everyone to get vaccinated and to wear a mask if you're indoors with people whose vaccination status is unknown. 

"Before delta, if someone wanted to go to a large event and they were not vaccinated, they were really only putting themselves at risk," said former White House doctor and WorldClinic Chief Medical Officer William Lang. "Now with delta, if you choose not to be vaccinated, you are slightly increasing the risk for people who are vaccinated." While breakthrough COVID-19 infections can happen with the delta variant, vaccination, time and again, has been shown to be protective against severe illness.

The risk of illness if you're not vaccinated applies to people of all ages, including younger people who may mistakenly believe COVID-19 isn't a threat to them, he says.

"Younger people are not going to get as severely ill, but we're seeing plenty of younger people in the hospital [and] in the ICU," he said. 

It's anyone's guess when conditions could improve, experts say, but it's important to maintain a sense of perspective if events are canceled or postponed in the coming months.

"Everybody has to realize that entertainers who are awesome entertainers are not going to stop being awesome entertainers tomorrow," Schabel said. "They're still going to have the ability to play and sing and dance and perform. If you keep that in mind, then everybody can make really good decisions about health and safety."