Researchers Are Experimenting With COVID-Safe Festivals

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Image: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

With tough restrictions in place across Europe amid the rise of the more infectious U.K. coronavirus variant, the pounding bass of the usually flourishing festival season feels like a distant memory for many of the continent’s festivalgoers.

But now, with the Dutch government’s blessing, a group of researchers and event organizers in the Netherlands are teaming up to see whether it might be possible to hold COVID-safe festivals and other large live music events. If they succeed, the sound of pee trickling down your half-collapsed camping tent and the smell of mud and vomit may not be as distant of a prospect as you think. 

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That’s a big ‘if’ though, and what those festivals would actually look like remains a very open question. 

The research pilot festivals, being organized by a group called Fieldlab, are set to be held March 13th and 14th in Walibi, a theme park an hour outside of Amsterdam. The group got a whopping 100,000 applications, out of which only 3,000 people will be able to buy tickets. On both days, attendees will be split into three smaller groups each of which will follow a different set of rules so that the results can be compared. In one group, for example, attendees will have to keep a 1.5 meter (~5 feet) distance, while another group won’t have any distance requirement. All visitors, however, are told to behave like they would pre-COVID-19. 

Attendees will have to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result 48 hours before entering and have their temperatures checked at the door, said Maarten Schram, a member of Fieldlab, the organization running the trials—another 10 percent of attendees will undergo on-site rapid tests. Attendees will then be asked to take another PCR test five days after attending and told to stay away from vulnerable groups until they receive their result. 

“We had to create as safe a setting as possible to even be allowed to run this pilot in a lockdown situation, which is obviously quite unique,” Schram told Motherboard over the phone. “Beyond the other safety measures, we do air quality measures in the different tents. Very importantly, every guest is tagged with a personalized anonymized tracker so we can then analyze how people move in an event, how many people they interact with, and their behavior. We combine this with anonymized video analysis as well.” 

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“Our aim is to examine and test several paths for how events could happen in the future. How can we organize safe events with a bigger audience?” he added. 

This isn’t the first attempt at studying whether large in-person events can be held safely during the pandemic in the Netherlands. In fact, the pilot festivals are just the most recent in a string of trials conducted by Fieldlab, including an indoor cabaret performance with 500 attendees and two football matches, each with 1,500 attendees. Both went successfully, the group said. 

Other countries have tried similar experiments as well. In Spain, for example, the popular Primavera Sound festival held a trial event with 1,047 people last December in coordination with the University Hospital Germans Trias i Pujol. After the participants were tested eight days later, none of the members of the experimental group tested positive, while two members of the control group did. 

Professor Michael Gekle is dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Halle in central Germany. In August, he was part of a team of scientists that oversaw a 1,200-person indoor trial concert. They concluded that, with proper measures in place such as mask use, proper ventilation, a checkered seating pattern, and enough entrances and exits, such an event could take place with minimal risk of infection.

While he recognizes that there are thousands more COVID-19 infections a day in Germany now than when his research took place, he still thinks that his team’s findings still hold. 

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“There is one clear message besides ventilation: One has to ensure adherence to the hygiene rules. I.e. It’s all about discipline and you need people (stewards) that take care of the discipline,” Gekle wrote to Motherboard in an email. “Yes, providing enough fresh air and a high-performance ventilation system at events is a major point. Besides that, it’s important to prevent longer person-to-person contacts.” 

“Speaking of contacts, or more so avoiding contacts, it’s also important that venues have enough entrances and exits to provide a one-way-system, that people stay at their seats most of the time—also for food and drink consumption—and that they wear their masks the entire time,” he added. 

Other epidemiologists like Michael Edelstein—a professor and infectious diseases expert at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel—argue that even the measures being trialed in the Netherlands and Germany aren’t enough to safely hold music festivals. Experiments that may work well on paper can differ from real world application, he said. 

“Considering the ongoing high levels of circulation of the virus in Europe, I don’t see a set of measures that could guarantee that transmission would not occur at such events, especially when vaccine coverage is extremely low,” Edelstein wrote in an email. “There are many factors that will change from one event to another including the composition and behaviour of the audience (people behave differently when participating in a study, an effect known as the Hawthorne effect), airflows owing to the the physical characteristics of each specific venue… we also know that most COVID19 cases do not transmit the virus to other but a smaller number of ‘superspreaders’ infect many others. Famous examples include the nomination of Supreme court judge Amy [Coney] Barrett and a choir practice event where one person infected 52 other people—these events are hard to predict and hard to control.”

Of course the most fool-proof way to ensure a safe event is a mass vaccination campaign, but with slow progress in most of Europe at least, reaching a high enough proportion of vaccinated people might take a long time. With places like Israel only opening high-risk activities and locations to people who have already received a jab, it could be that there simply is no combination of measures strong enough to constitute a shortcut to holding large events. 

In the meantime, however, researchers such as Gekle are calling for more research to be done in the field and government investment. 

“What is needed are follow-up interventional studies in different venues to come to more generalizable conclusions,” he wrote. “We are planning in this direction. Yet as always it’s a matter of resources.” 

“We can do the studies needed to falsify or verify a thesis,” he added.