Chicago, IL

Why Did Chicago Okay Lollapalooza Despite Health Officials’ Warnings That COVID-19 Would Likely Significantly Increase?

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Some have accused Chicago leaders of putting people's lives at risk by holding Lollapalooza for the money the music festival generates.

Lollapalooza, one of the largest music festivals in the country, is the first major event that was known to draw huge crowds that was scheduled after the city of Chicago reopened. There was hope that the July 4th fireworks held every year at Navy Pier which was chanceled last year would take place this year. But there was enough concern over the crowds that it always draws that Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, decided to cancel it.

Lightfoot and Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events intending to prioritze health and safety replaced the annual Fourth of July fireworks with other virtual events and small gatherings provided for free to lower the risk of further coronavirus spread. They offered a virtual home music festival and a virtual "Independence Day Salute" concert, given by the Grant Park Orchestra. At home salsa dance parties were held across the city with limits of 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors with a live broadcast and free lessons.

Yet, COVID rates in Illinois at the beginning of July were among the lowest they had been. In the first three weeks of July, however, the number of daily COVID-19 cases in Illinois tripled based on the state's Department of Public Health data. The last week of June there the average daily number of new cases was 303. At the end of the third week of July, this number jumped to 1,140, with almost 8,000 new cases for the week.

Although there has been a voluntary masking policy when inside public spaces, Chicago positivity rate is 3.1 percent representing an average of over 200 cases per day. This is considered to be a "substantial" level of transmission which is defined as over 100 cases per 100,000 people across a 7-day period.

Friday night Lollapalooza tweeted that for the last two days of the festival festival goers would be required to wear masks if entering any of their indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status.

This video show just how huge the crowds are at Lollapalooza in Chicago, as well as how many people have been attending the festival without wearing masks:

Among the health officials who warned that holding Lollapalooza was a bad idea, was prominent Chicago infectious diseases expert, Dr. Emily Landon, who said before the festival began that many people would contract the virus during the event and take it back to where they came from calling the festival a "spreader" event that could start "wildfires of infection" across the U.S..

“I think a lot of people are going to get COVID at Lollapalooza,” Landon said. “The real problem is not so much that a bunch of young people who come into Chicago getting COVID at this event. The real problem is them taking it back to places that have very low vaccination rates."

Other infectious disease experts are preparing for a large spike in COVID-19 infections in Chicago and elsewhere which they expect will develop the week after next.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a pediatrician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago called it a "recipe for disaster."

“You have people coming in all over from U.S., and even though the organizers are taking some efforts to mitigate infections, I don’t know how they’re going to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, handwashing." said Tan. "Not to mention some people bring their younger kids under 12 who can’t be vaccinated, and some of those parents are not vaccinated themselves.”

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Northwestern’s Institute for Global Health also expressed concern over holding Lollapalooza. “The numbers are going up,” he said. "When the case numbers go up, within two to three weeks, hospitalizations will go up. Then the ICU admissions increase, and then the death rate goes up. It’s spinning out of control."

Mayor Lightfoot ignored these and other warnings, saying they were being issued by "critics on the sidelines," stating that her health team said it was perfectly safe to hold the Chicago festival.

In the days since then, the CDC specifically stated that even fully vaccinated people should go back to wearing masks when indoors. Cook County health officials issued the new mask recommendations last Friday, saying that it is imperitive that the county (where Chicago is located) "must contain [COVID-19] through both vaccinations and prevention measures such as mask wearing indoors and in crowded outdoor settings." Data has shown that 84 out of 102 counties in Illinois or about 82 percent had transmission rates considered to be substantial or high.

There is no way to monitor the behavior of so many people once they are inside the gates, and some of the negative tests are bound to be false negatives. Research has shown with rapid test, false negatives may be as high as 21.7 percent of those tested in first week of infection and 49 percent of those tested in the second week. PCR tests are more accurate but still result in some false negatives. It didn't escape notice that signs are posted at the entrances that state that by attending Lollapalooza, “you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, which can lead to severe illness and death.”

So, why was the music festival not canceled beforehand and why, with the new concerns nationwide over rising rates of transmission fueled by the delta variant, and increasing cases in Chicago hasn't it been canceled when these new guidelines and recommendations were issued? Many have accused Chicago leadership of holding the festival against the advice of numerous health officials because they didn't want to lose out on the revenue it would generate. The revenue that comes from the festival goes to the Chicago Park District, which is ultimately controled by Mayor Lightfoot as is its budget.

Under the current contract which is up for renegotiation, Chicago Park District is guaranteed a payment of "at least $1.5 million each year. The Park District also receives 5% of all sponsorship revenue in excess of $3.25 million, and 5% of all food and beverage revenue in excess of $3 million."

The contract also provides a sliding scale for the cut of the gate the Chicago Park District receives. In 2012, Chicago Parks received 11% of net admission revenue from Lollapalooza. This year, that number has been increased to 15%, up from 14.5% in 2019.

Despite the festival being canceled last year, the Chicago Park District still was paid $750,000 under the contrats “force majeure” clause, which is a type of insurance against "fire, hurricane, flood, tornado, “act of God,” terrorist act, mechanical or structural failure, civil commotion and other developments that are not reasonably foreseeable and are beyond reasonable control.”

The Chicago Park District disclosed it received $7.4 million in revenue from the 2019 festival and reported that its local economic impact was $245 million. However, some have hypothesized that the amount of money generated is much higher and the Chicago Park District would not release the verified statements of revenue the certified accountant for C3 Presents is required to provide to the Chicago Park District after each festival.

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