On the Ground at Riot Fest: How are the Festival’s COVID-19 Protocols Holding Up?

Try not to feint from shock, but a festival named for violent disobedience is showing some indifference to following the rules. The question is whether Chicago’s Riot Fest 2021 can enforce enough of its own COVID-19 protocols to avoid becoming a super-spreader event. There’s one big reason to think it’s possible.

Last month, Lollapalooza welcomed some 385,000 concert-goers in the middle of a pandemic, and only about 200 new COVID-19 cases were traced to the four-day event. That’s not the only evidence that Chicago can responsibly host many thousands of people in controlled outdoor settings. While it’s too early to make any judgments about the 2021 Pitchfork Music Festival, those coronavirus entrance requirements were stricter than most. Besides that, organizers heavily encouraged mask-wearing except when eating or drinking. This makes Riot Fest an interesting test case, because Riot Fest is not like that.

Granted, there are similar gate requirements. Riot Fest attendees must show either proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours. Rapid COVID tests are also available, though that’s not great for two reasons: because rapid tests are way less accurate than PCR tests; and because despite its shittiness, it will still run you $50.

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Still, a majority of Americans are vaccinated, and about 90% of Lollapalooza attendees were fully inoculated. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Riot Fest come in around the same mark — or even higher, because the crowd skews older. Besides that, I can report that the two times I have entered the grounds of Douglas Park my vaccination card and ID were carefully scrutinized.

But in one of those instances, the young man enforcing the rule had his mask below his chin. I’ve noticed small groups of fully unmasked Riot Fest workers many times, and out of the dozens of police officers, I have seen every single one’s full mouth. While most of the portable toilets possess functional sanitizer stations, at least one group of johns (on W. Ogden Ave.) has been consistently dry. And although other festivals have given away free masks, Riot Fest expects you to bring your own.

Some people have. As mentioned, the crowd skews older, and mask wearing seems somewhat more common than it was at Lollpalooza. But it’s still the exception rather than the rule, and almost nobody is wearing them inside of the porta-potties, in defiance of Chicago’s indoor mask mandate.

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We’ll be carefully watching the COVID-19 case numbers in the weeks after Riot Fest. Between the expected high vaccination rates and the fact that this coronavirus spreads poorly outdoors, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the event dodges the super-spreader label. And if turns out that the virus is running rampant, we’ll have an idea of how very high the standards have to be to keep live music flourishing. In the meantime, can someone please refill the sanitizer for the toilets on Ogden Ave? Pandemic or no pandemic, have some decency.

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