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160,000 music fans pour into SoCal’s Hard Summer festival in face of Delta variant surge

A group of people, most without a mask, walk
Festival-goers approach the entrance to the Hard Summer music festival on July 31, 2021, in San Bernardino, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

If music festivals are going to safely return this year, more fans should make appointments with Quynh Borkenhagen.

Borkenhagen was the pharmacist running the free COVID-19 vaccine tent at this past weekend’s Hard Summer festival at the NOS Event Center in San Bernardino. It was the first large-scale music festival to return to the L.A. area since the pandemic threw the concert industry into a year and a half of turmoil. Just a month ago, the sold-out hip-hop and EDM fest from Live Nation subsidiary Insomniac, which announced two-day attendance at 160,000, looked as if it would mark a triumphant return for SoCal’s festival season.

But with the Delta variant emerging as a major worry, especially among the unvaccinated, Borkenhagen did her best to convince the passing crowds at Hard to take a Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson jab en route to see Future or Lil Durk.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Borkenhagen said of her first day’s appointments in the medical tent. She couldn’t give exact figures for the day’s tally, but said that “even if one person got vaccinated today, I’d consider that a success, and we’ve vaccinated a lot more than one person.”

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Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett tells The Times that Frank Ocean will headline the festival in 2023, and reflects on the ongoing damage of COVID-19.

But as EDM drums boomed behind her, and the late-afternoon crowd massed underneath a glowing Ferris wheel, she knows that holding future concerts like this one remains contingent on everyone doing the right thing.

“The virus is very smart, and it’s going to keep mutating unless we get ahead of it,” she said. “As a community, we need everyone to get onboard and vaccinated so we can get our lives back.”

 A group of people dance
Attendees of the Hard Summer festival, held during a surge in new coronavirus cases.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Just a month ago, California seemed as if it was on its way. The state re-opened businesses with few, if any, remaining restrictions in June. President Biden and chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci gave Americans the go-ahead to celebrate the 4th of July however they pleased, as long as they were fully vaccinated. Summer and fall festivals felt achievable; Insomniac threw a few trial-run shows in L.A. with DJs like Kaskade and Alesso in the weeks prior to Hard.

But on the way through the Hard festival gates, questions about the Delta variant accompanied fans’ enthusiasm to dance with their friends again.

For Yena Cho, a 21-year-old from Orange County, festival-going was a big part of her social life pre-pandemic. But as she made her way to the entrance, “I’m also kind of nervous about COVID, even though I’m vaccinated,” she said.

Brandon, a 34-year-old from L.A. (who didn’t give his last name), said, “There’s a lot of open space here and I think they’ve done a good job informing people about how to be safe. But with the new variant, everyone’s scared. I’ve had friends who were vaccinated and they still got COVID.”

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Frank Rodriguez, 23, from Temecula, said Hard Summer was his first big event since the start of the pandemic. “I’m not overly worried about Delta,” he said. He’s fully vaccinated, and on top of that, “they look pretty prepared with masks and sanitation stations here.”

But one early twenty-something from central L.A., who was masked but not vaccinated (and asked to be anonymous), said that he was having second thoughts as he pushed through the crowd of sweaty bodies at the bag check.

“We have a new variant coming out, and it’s affecting everyone,” he said. His girlfriend was vaccinated, and he was on the fence about it himself, but “Delta should make everyone nervous, vaccinated or not. It’s a natural thing for people to want to come out and be happy at these festivities. But you’ve got to be real about it.”

Non-masked festival-goers stand under strings of lights
Fans take in Hard Summer, the first local music festival held since COVID-19 shut down the concert industry in March 2020.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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As of Sunday, COVID-19 cases are up 131% over the last two weeks in California, with deaths up 34% . Sixty-one percent of Californians have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The L.A. County Department of Public Health has recommended that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public areas while the Delta variant circulates, though they emphasize that vaccines still confer a very high degree of protection against severe illness. A recent UK government study found that the Pfizer mRNA vaccine was 96 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and 88 percent effective against symptomatic disease from Delta (Moderna has also cited studies claiming high effectiveness against severe illness from Delta).

Meanwhile, concerts have returned at outdoor venues like the Greek Theatre and Hollywood Bowl, nightclubs have re-opened to full capacity indoors and tens of thousands of fans are packing Dodger Stadium for home games.

A representative for the L.A. Philharmonic said that their policies at Hollywood Bowl shows abide by L.A. County safety protocols: “We do not currently have vaccination or testing requirements at the Hollywood Bowl, but do encourage all who can to get vaccinated. Masking is required when not in your seats.”

Hard Summer, held entirely outdoors, did not require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test to enter (Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival, attended this past weekend by more than 100,000 people, did). Last month‘s Rolling Loud in Miami arrived just as its home state was ravaged by Delta, though it’s still uncertain if such events contributed to spreading the virus. In July, A Dutch festival that required proof of vaccination, a recent COVID-19 test or proof of a prior infection to enter, nonetheless reported more than 1,000 new COVID cases among its 20,000 attendees over two days. Meanwhile, a recent Centers for Disease Control study found an unexpected cluster of cases among the vaccinated after the July 4th weekend in the vacation mecca of Provincetown, Mass. The CDC has described the Delta variant as similarly contagious as chickenpox.

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Promoters are taking fresh precautions: An upcoming Central Park concert in New York City featuring Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen announced that proof of vaccination will be required for admittance.

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Masks were handed out for free at Hard, and a portion of fans did wear them inside the open-air grounds. A rep for the festival said that while staff and vendors were not required to be vaccinated, they had to wear masks if they were not (and could receive free shots in the medical tent). Insomniac said it had a contact-tracing system in place for all vendors and employees.

Insomniac’s founder, Pasquale Rotella, canceled a scheduled interview to discuss Hard’s safety protocols amid the emerging Delta wave two days before the festival.

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Meagan DesChenes, the executive director of Hard Events, told The Times that their internal surveys of Hard ticket buyers reported 87% of fans being fully vaccinated and that nearly two-thirds said they got vaccinated specifically to attend music festivals this summer. “In our core audience, we are seeing drastically higher rates of vaccination than what is the norm across the country,” she said.

“Of course, the situation could evolve, and our plans will evolve accordingly,” she added. But “every event we’ve done has been in strict compliance with local and state guidelines and public health recommendations.”

A masked and an unmasked fan walk in front of other groups of people
A masked and an unmasked fan attend the Hard Summer music festival.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

David Wert, a public information officer for San Bernardino County, said in a statement to The Times that the county and state recommended, but did not require, mandatory vaccinations or testing to enter the festival. “The current state guidance for outdoor events involving 10,000 or more people is a recommendation that attendees confirm proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 status in order to attend,” he said. “The County Department of Public Health reached out to both the venue and the event organizer earlier [in July] to ensure they understand the state’s recommendations for large outdoor events. The County urges everyone, especially those attending large gatherings, to get vaccinated and to use caution until they are fully vaccinated.”

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But alongside Delta concerns, artists who have been locked out of live performances were desperate to get back to gigs. Hard Summer was the first chance many of them had to perform to their usual crowds (and for much-needed paychecks).

“It’s been such challenging times for everyone with the pandemic, and it’s great to see people come together and go to shows with their friends,” said DJ and producer Rezz, one of Saturday’s headliners, who said she is fully vaccinated. “I’m happy to be back doing what I love, playing shows.”

“I am very hopeful, but I’m also prepared if it were to all vanish if a stronger variant were to hit,” said Caroline Cecil, a producer and DJ who performs as Whipped Cream. The Atlantic Records artist played Hard Summer on Sunday and said that she’s fully vaccinated.

“I really hope my fans want to get vaccinated because I believe that means less chance of variants ruining the progress we have made,” she said. She wouldn’t mandate vaccination cards to attend her own gigs, but “I hope [fans] would consider it for the general population. It’s about more than just them.”

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In the next few weeks, several other large outdoor festivals, like Lil Wayne’s Uproar and Napa Valley’s BottleRock, are coming to California. A representative for Live Nation said BottleRock attendees will now have to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

As the sun set over Hard Summer and the event hit full capacity, Borkenhagen’s vaccination team flagged down anyone who looked interested. With Delta emerging as a potentially devastating new wave in the U.S., the future of the music and crowds around them will depend on everyone getting a jab.

“That was the main thing for me when I was approached to do this, because we’re targeting a younger population that might feel invincible,” Borkenhagen said. “If we can give them another avenue to get it when they’re going to be here anyway, that’s fantastic.”


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