Are crowds safe as Delta variant spreads?

Guests arrive for the first day of the Lollapalooza music festival on July 29, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The four-day music festival in the city's downtown is expected to draw 110,000 fans each day.
Guests arrive for the first day of the Lollapalooza music festival on July 29, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The four-day music festival in the city's downtown was expected to draw 110,000 fans each day. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) Photo credit Getty Images

Just as people began feeling comfortable to plan crowd-drawing events again this summer, a COVID-19 surge fueled by the Delta variant started spreading across the nation. Are crowds safe, at least for the vaccinated?

“There's no such thing as safe,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, according to USA Today. “There's only safer, and that only happens by layering one mitigation measure on top of another.”

He likened mitigations such as mask wearing for vaccinated people to wearing a seatbelt when in a car.

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Outdoor crowds

Recent outdoor events held as COVID numbers surge, such as the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, have caused concerns about outdoor super spreader events. An estimated 385,000 overall concertgoers attended the multi-day festival in Grant Park, many without masks.

Lollapalooza attendees were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, but a recent CDC study related to events in Cape Cod early last month indicate that vaccinated individuals can contract and spread the Delta variant.

Even so, vaccinated individuals tend to have less severe symptoms and less mortality rates than those without vaccines.

“The main challenge there is going to be that any attendee won't know everyone else's vaccination status, and we are seeing that Delta is much more transmissible than previous versions of COVID,” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Medicine Vice Dean Elizabeth Stuart told USA Today. “And so even if it’s a small proportion of people that are infected, the chance of it transmitting is going to be higher.”

Outdoor events events should be safer than indoor ones, she said.

Indoor crowds

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public, indoor settings if they are with high COVID-19 transmission rates of 50 cases per 100,000 people or more.

Officials said that fully vaccinated people could choose to wear a mask indoors regardless of the transmission levels in their area if they or someone in their household is unvaccinated, immunocompromised or at higher risk of getting a severe infection from COVID-19, said USA Today.

In fact, the CDC recommends that vaccinated, immunocompromised people should be aware of “the potential for reduced immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines.”

For those who are not immunocompromised or do not live with someone who is, following the CDC guidance should prevent them from serious COVID infections.

Planning an event

“It's not that you can't have a party or shouldn't have a party, but let's give strategies to think through how to make it as safe as possible,” said Stuart of planning an event such as a wedding.

Measures that can help keep gatherings safe are: not holding events in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, encouraging guests to get vaccinated before attending and asking guests to adopt other mitigations such as mask wearing.

According to the CDC, unvaccinated people should “continue masking until they are fully vaccinated,” and practice other precautions, including avoiding crowds in restaurants, bars and other locations.

While vaccinated adults could gather for larger gatherings with precautions, small gathering with other vaccinated people are safe for parents of children who are too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Poland.

“In my mind, you’re taking a risk that’s not necessary,” he said of large gatherings that involve unvaccinated children.