Festival Season ’21: Covid rates best to worst
As we approach Peak Festival Weekend, here's a rundown of the who, what, where – and infection rates – of the summer’s previous music events.
This August Bank Holiday is the biggest weekend for UK festivals in over two years.
From the feral moshers of Reading and Leeds to the cheese-loving Tories at Alex James’ The Big Feastival, via London’s All Points East and South Facing, Victorious in Portsmouth and more, the nation will be celebrating the circuit’s return to relative normality – while hoping to avoid any Covid complications.
At times, it seemed like it would take a miracle for any 2021 festivals to get off the ground, what with a lockdown extension; the government stalling on a Treasury-backed event insurance scheme (finally due to start in September); ever-changing travel restrictions; and the chaotic rollout of vaccine passports for nightclubs and venues (still likely to become compulsory later this year).
But the Bank Holiday events follow a clutch of other outdoor shows that have already blazed a trail for live music’s return this summer.
The latest figures from the government’s Events Research Programme (ERP) look encouraging, showing that – despite hundreds of cases being linked to some gigs – full capacity events can go ahead safely, as long as some safety measures remain in place. And a festival is definitely much safer than the Euros were.
So, as British music fans prepare to hurl themselves into a muddy circle pit for the first time in 24 months, we round up everything that’s happened so far, in the UK and the US, during Festival Season 2021.
DONINGTON PARK, DERBYSHIRE, 18TH-20TH JUNE
Capacity and line-up: 10,000 headbangers for Enter Shikari, Bullet For My Valentine, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes.
What they said before the festival: Melvin Benn, director of Festival Republic, the owners of the event, welcomed ERP test event status as “the return of the full festival experience we have all been waiting for”.
What happened there: Guests needed negative lateral flow tests to enter, and had to take PCR tests before and after the event. Idles’ Joe Talbot guested with Frank Carter and Skindred frontman Benji Webbe cheerfully called Boris Johnson a “cunt” from the stage.
What happened after: According to the ERP, Download was linked with less than 100 positive Covid tests. Download promoter Andy Copping of Live Nation was confident it showed festivals could go ahead safely. “It has to help other festivals happen,” he said. “If the results are favourable, why shouldn’t other events open up?”
Lessons learned: Rockers never lose the ability to mosh, however out of practice they are. “It’s like riding a bike,” said Copping. “Once you’ve been in a circle pit, you’re never going to forget how to do it.”
PENDLETON WHISKY MUSIC FEST
PENDLETON, OREGON, 10TH JULY/FASTER HORSES, BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN, 16TH-18TH JULY
Capacity and line-up: 12,000 country-rockers at Pendleton for Toby Keith and Cole Swindell; 30,000 other country-rockers at Faster Horses for Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett.
What they said before the festival: Pendleton pledged to “follow all recommended health and safety guidelines”, although vaccination did not seem to be compulsory. Faster Horses said they “worked closely to ensure all recommended guidelines” were implemented, although there was little mention of restrictions on its website.
What happened there: Pendleton’s capacity was limited due to the pandemic, meaning headliners Eric Church and Macklemore deferred to 2022. At Faster Horses, Jason Aldean declared: “I can tell you what’s really cool – nobody is wearing a mask and I can see all your faces!”
What happened after: Oregon state officials linked 70 Covid cases to Pendleton. “It’s a very unfortunate situation,” said event co-manager Doug Corey. Michigan’s Department Of Health & Human Services urged Faster Horses attendees to get tested, after linking 23 positive cases to the event.
Lessons learned: Country fans don’t like restrictions – but the Delta variant poses a cross-genre challenge. “Some of our assumptions [about] how safe an outdoor event was probably aren’t as good as they were with the original version of this virus,” said Umatilla County public health director Joseph Fiumara.
GRANT PARK, CHICAGO, 19TH-21ST JULY
Capacity and line-up: 100,000 alt-rockers (and friends) for Miley Cyrus, Foo Fighters, Post Malone, Megan Thee Stallion.
What they said before the festival: Event-goers had to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to get in, although there were reports of fake vaccination cards in circulation.
What happened there: DaBaby was dropped from the line-up after a homophobic outburst at another show. Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst debuted his new “dad” look. But most of the attention was focused on the sheer size of the crowd, none of whom appeared to be wearing masks.
What happened after: DaBaby got dropped from several other events before finally issuing a mealy-mouthed apology. And, although some in Chicago claimed the festival would lead to a huge surge in infections, Dr Allison Arwady, the city’s Department Of Public Health commissioner, insisted only 203 mild cases were linked to Lolla and that there was “no evidence” of a super-spreader event.
Lessons learned: It went well enough for Live Nation to roll out Lolla’s protocols as its nationwide template. But Limp Bizkit also enjoyed a huge spike in streams, showing nu-metal is one variant that will never be totally eliminated.
HENHAM PARK, SUFFOLK, 22ND-25TH JULY
Capacity and line-up: 40,000 parents (and teenage children) for Wolf Alice, Chemical Brothers, Bastille.
What they said before the event: As another ERP test event, Latitude was the first festival after lockdown eased, although fans were still required to show a negative test or be double vaccinated. “Becoming an ERP event gives us the security of going ahead,” said festival director Melvin Benn. “Crucially, the additional research collected at Latitude will benefit all festivals and live events.”
What happened there: Arlo Parks, Fontaines DC and Billie Marten pulled out due to positive tests in their camps, but there was also a surprise appearance from – appropriately enough – The Vaccines. And not just the band. You could even get your second Pfizer or AstraZeneca dose on site, as well as a – ahem – “Latitude flow test”.
What happened after: Some local reports bemoaned a Covid spike after the festival, but the ERP said the 1,000-odd cases it linked to the event were in line with expectations.
Lessons learned: Benn called finally getting to stage the event “a dream come true”. Proof that there ain’t no party like a Freedom Day party.
HILLSBOROUGH PARK, SHEFFIELD, 23RD-25TH JULY
Capacity and line-up: 40,000 ageing ravers for The Streets, Royal Blood, Supergrass.
What they said before the event: Headliner Richard Ashcroft pulled out in protest at its ERP test event status, which meant proof of vaccination or a negative test was an entry requirement. “The status of the festival was one thing when I signed up for it, but sadly was forced to become something else,” he wrote on Instagram. “It must be an age thing but the words Government Experiment and Festival 😂😂😂#naturalrebel #theydontownme”
What happened there: Despite Ashcroft’s party-pooping, joyous scenes accompanied the festival’s return. BRITs 2019 Breakthrough Artist Tom Walker called it “a release of tension for everyone” and The Pigeon Detectives hailed it as “the most important show we’ve ever played”. How much competition there was for that honour is perhaps debatable.
What happened after: As with Latitude, the 1,000-odd Covid infections that were linked with the event were in line with levels of infection elsewhere.
Lessons learned: When Richard Ashcroft sang “I can’t change my mould” on Bitter Sweet Symphony, he really, really meant it.
WATERGATE BAY AND FISTRAL BEACH, NEWQUAY, CORNWALL, 11TH-15TH AUGUST
Capacity and line-up: 50,000 surf-adjacent party people for Gorillaz, Foals, Jorja Smith.
What they said before the event: All ticket buyers had to show proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test. It was actually the first Boardmasters for three years (it was cancelled in 2019 due to bad weather), with organiser Andrew Topham thanking fans for “sticking with us… Your continued support has been truly overwhelming,” he added.
What happened there: The long wait for the surf-friendly festival meant that the youthful crowd was uber up for it, particularly during Dizzee Rascal’s, Ashnikko’s and Foals’ sets. Although much social media buzz seemed to be about the shocking state of the toilets (warning: don’t Google it on your lunch break).
What happened after: Sadly, the bogs weren’t the only issue. Cornwall Council’s public health team have linked 4,700 Covid cases to the event, with Newquay topping the national rate of infection chart, while some models suggested the true number could be even higher. Thankfully, with most cases amongst the young, it hasn’t translated into a similar spike in hospitalisations. “We will continue to work with our public health partners to understand the extent to which attendance at the festival has contributed to the figures,” said an event spokesperson.
Lessons learned: The Surfers Against Sewage movement still has work to do.
CATTON PARK, WALTON-ON-TRENT, DERBYSHIRE, 11TH-15TH AUGUST
Capacity and line-up: 15,000 metalheads for Judas Priest, Kreator, Devin Townsend.
What they said before the event: Such was the appetite for metal after two years away that Bloodstock added an extra day to its 2021 edition. Numerous international acts pulled out due to travel restrictions and negative tests were mandatory. “When the festival opens, we will all cry,” said festival director Vicky Hungerford.
What happened there: On stage, Brian Blessed introduced Saxon. Backstage, Cradle Of Filth frontman Dani Filth confirmed plans to collaborate with Ed Sheeran. Proof that post-pandemic, pretty much anything goes in the world of metal.
What happened after: Festival organisers warned fans to get tested when “a few” positive cases were reported amongst attendees. “We consider we went well above and beyond our legal requirement to protect all festival goers, artists and crew as much as possible,” said an official statement.
Lessons learned: Metalheads have better toilet hygiene than surfers. Who’dathunk it?
BRECON BEACONS, 19TH-22ND AUGUST
Capacity and line-up: 20,000 BBC 6 Music listeners for Caribou, Mogwai, Fontaines DC.
What they said before the event: Green Man wasn’t a test event, but still required proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry. With Wales lagging behind England on relaxing restrictions, it faced a nervous wait to see if it could proceed, with Green Man owner Fiona Stewart declaring: “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that it’s actually going ahead.”
What happened there: Charlotte Church did a set of covers in her Late Night Pop Dungeon, Laura Marling made a surprise appearance and Self-Esteem delivered perhaps the weekend’s standout set. Even the traditional burning of the Green Man effigy went off without a hitch.
What happened after: It’s too soon for Green Man’s Covid numbers to have come through, leaving everyone free to concentrate on the positives. Church called it “the best festival in the world”, while Stewart said it was a “joyous fest of incredibly relaxed, happy people”.
Lessons learned: Charlotte Church is still a thing. But hopefully Covid soon won’t be.