Is it safe for Coachella to return as soon as April 2021? A medical expert weighs in

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·8 min read

This year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was originally supposed to take place over the weekends of April 10 and 18, but this past March, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to become a national safety concern, AEG/Goldenvoice understandably rescheduled. At that time, promoters seemed optimistic that it would be safe to proceed in October 2020, but as the virus continues to wreak havoc on the music industry, this week’s decision to officially cancel this year’s festival entirely was unavoidable and unsurprising.

What is surprising, however, is AEG/Goldenvoice’s new announcement that the next Coachella (as well as the country music festival Stagecoach, which takes place on the same Empire Polo Club grounds) will be held in April 2021. It had been rumored that promoters were considering delaying both festivals until October of next year, since many experts have warned that large-scale concerts will not be able to safely resume until late 2021. Coachella is, in fact, the largest music festival in the United States, attracting 250,000 concertgoers over its two weekends, with concurrent unofficial satellite parties and events luring thousands more spring-breakers to the Indio, Calif., desert area.

Perhaps not wanting to be overly optimistic this time around, AEG/Goldenvoice’s latest rescheduling announcement leaves some wiggle room, with promoters promising they “have every intention of returning in 2021” and “as of now, Coachella weekend one will take place April 9-11, 2021 and weekend two will be April 16-18, 2021. Stagecoach is set for April 23-25, 2021.” The statement also tells fans, “We can’t wait to be together in the desert again when it is safe.”

But when will it be safe? Is April 2021 too soon? According to Dr. Kavita Patel, Yahoo medical contributor, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former health policy adviser for the Obama administration, the answer is … well, yes.

“I agree with the instinct that a large gathering [is risky],” Patel tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Even if everything went perfectly, do we have great treatments for COVID? Even if we have a vaccine, could we have a mutation or another strain of a virus that creates this exact same scenario all over again? There are just too many unknowns for me to feel confident that any large gathering could happen in early 2021.”

Patel theorizes that AEG/Goldenvoice is trying to maintain some semblance of order by sticking to its regular spring schedule, and is perhaps too enthusiastic about possible advancements in the prevention and treatment of the coronavirus by next year.

“I think [promoters] are probably looking at what public health experts and scientists are saying, which is, ‘We’ll have more treatments by then. Hopefully, we’ll have gotten through a second wave in the fall,’ ” she begins. “And if you stack up what people are saying about ‘hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine’ and treatments that look incredibly promising, you might add that up and say, ‘This won’t be so bad. Let’s keep with our regular calendar. Let’s give people something to look forward to.’ That’s what I would interpret, having no insider knowledge whatsoever.

“But as a health expert, I would be concerned about that timing — and unfortunately setting it up for the same exact dynamic that happened this year [with another postponement or cancellation],” Patel continues. “We could be up and running in April 2021, but literally today we’re starting to see huge spikes. We’re talking about going into this second wave earlier than we thought. So who knows what this could look like?”

Ellie Goulding performs at the 2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. (Photo: Filmagic)
Ellie Goulding performs at the 2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. (Photo: Filmagic)

However, assuming that the Coachella festival does proceed next April as planned, Patel has some suggestions for making the situation as manageable and low-risk as possible. Her main recommendation is that AEG/Goldenvoice downsize the attendance and sell fewer tickets — which might happen by default, since Billboard has reported that roughly 40 percent of this year’s ticket-buyers have already requested refunds. She also suggests distributing mini-hand sanitizer bottles to all attendees; setting up hand-washing stations all over the festival grounds; and having assigned, roped-off, Hollywood Bowl-style seating sections rather than general admission (“to limit the ability for one person who could be infected to just bop around and infect a bunch of people”). Taking attendees’ temperatures at the entrance should also be a standard practice — although body temperatures might be difficult to accurately assess when the desert heat typically creeps in the 90s or even over 100 degrees during festival season. (Patel thinks some sort of symptom-screening, temperature-monitoring phone app could help with this.)

“I actually think that we’re going to have to do all these things for probably a couple of years, because I just don’t think we’re going to have some magic vaccine that cures us all,” Patel states.

Other cautionary measures might be harder to enforce — particularly the selling of passes to fans, or even the booking of older artists like 67-year-old Danny Elfman, who might be considered high-risk.

“This is going to sound incredibly prescriptive, but you would not want to have older people or people with disabilities, people with special chronic problems or medical conditions — or, you would just want to make it incredibly clear that this is a high-risk situation and you would not recommend that they attend,” Patel explains. “I’m going by the science: The risk increases after the age of 50. … And we get a lot of young adults with medical conditions, too. Normally, they could just go online and buy [a ticket], no issues. So now [promoters] may need to put up important warnings, or consider the worst-case scenario — which is that an infection outbreak happens and someone dies who was high-risk, which could have been avoided if they had been warned. They may need to make special accommodations. You can do some of those things, but it takes extra preparation.”

While Patel foresees it becoming common for organizers of all large-scale events to ask attendees to sign waivers stating that they are aware of the risks of crowds, she stresses, “My concern about the waivers is it seems as if it makes the sponsoring organization ‘off the hook’ for any precautions — which is not the point. I do think it’s something that large gatherings are going to use waivers more and more, as a way to say, ‘Look, it’s not our issue.’ I do think that large events like Coachella could do the same thing. But it should not be an allowance to let people off the hook.”

Fans at the 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
Fans at the 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Ultimately, Patel believes “it would be really hard to think about even a pared-down Coachella. … My advice would be to do this in a really small way, and I do think there’s a modified way that makes a lot more sense, but I just don’t know if it makes any financial sense.”

Coachella typically generates roughly $100 million in revenue over its two consecutive weekends, and according to Bloomberg, AEG/Goldenvoice has asked several of the artists who were set to play this year’s Coachella to commit to perform in 2021, in the hopes that this might persuade fans to hold on to their tickets until next year. Bookings for 2020 had included the reunited Rage Against the Machine, Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey, Lil Nas X and Elfman; the lineup for Coachella 2021 has not yet been announced.

But regardless of who performs, assuming that Coachella does safely proceed next April, all 2020 tickets will be honored. Current pass-holders will be emailed by June 15 with instructions on how to either receive a refund or roll over their tickets to 2021. Patel seems to think that the former is the smarter option.

“If I had to sum it up, I would say I would be hesitant. I would be nervous to be the first person to go into a gathering of that size as early as April 2021,” Patel says. “Having said that, I respect the fact that the concert sponsors are trying to give America a sense of normalcy. If they do decide to proceed with this — and of course, I think this all changes if the state of California declares an emergency, etc., but let’s just assume that they’re following and compliant with all the laws — then they absolutely must consider a smaller footprint. And one that does not look like any traditional concert we’ve seen.”

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