What About Outdoor Concerts?

Is it safe for the vaccinated to attend the Stern Grove Festival? Probably, but be prepared for updated safety protocols.

Lately, coronavirus news has been giving locals a bit of whiplash. When San Francisco and six other Bay Area counties began strongly encouraging vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors two weeks ago, just one month after telling everyone they could take their masks off if they got the shot, previously compliant San Franciscans reported confusion and frustration. Now, masks are required indoors in the city, and many are wondering whether — or how far — San Francisco will slip backwards in our COVID-19 recovery. 

Meanwhile, the 84-year-old Stern Grove Festival concert series — which typically brings crowds of up to 10,000 to enjoy music outdoors every summer — enters its third and final month, begging the question: Just how safe is an open-air concert right now?

“We have to see what happens with the epidemiology,” says George Rutherford, UCSF professor of epidemiology and director of the UCSF Prevention and Public Health Group. “We have so many people vaccinated in the Bay Area that we’re going to be able to tolerate some amount of transmission and some number of cases and maybe even some pressure on the hospital system — but it’s not going to be that much.”

The festival has been a little smaller this year, with capacity limited to 3,500 people and attendees required to reserve free tickets online in advance. The festival also follows city mask guidance to a T, and though masks are currently not required for outdoor events, festival officials are encouraging face coverings.

“As of this minute, in addition to the many safety improvements we’ve implemented, we are encouraging masks, operating at reduced capacity, offering vaccines onsite, and will continue to closely follow official health guidelines and monitor the situation,” Bob Fiedler, executive director of the Stern Grove Festival, said in a statement provided to SF Weekly on Tuesday.

Fielder — who previously spoke to the San Francisco Examiner in advance of Perfume Genius’s headlining performance on June 27 — told the Examiner that festival executives had submitted a lengthy plan to the Department of Public Health outlining their protocols to get the go-ahead to host this year’s concert series.

The Examiner also reported there wasn’t a mask-covered face to be found among the crowd at that June show. But that was before the Delta variant became a cause of major concern in the United States.

“Any additional changes to the festival-going experience — including updated safety protocols — will be announced publicly via social media as well as on our website,” Fielder said in his most recent statement.

At press time, this Sunday’s concert — headlined by bass virtuoso and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Thundercat — has the go-ahead, and Rutherford says he isn’t reconsidering too many of his own plans.

However, he nonetheless urges San Franciscans to stay up to date on the latest Delta developments.

“This is guessing. It’s why I keep a crystal ball on my desk, so I can answer these kinds of questions,” he says — cracking wise about his ability to foresee the future, but not joking about the fact that this is a rapidly changing situation.

As of July 30, San Francisco was averaging 176 new cases a week — 10 times the rate of two months ago, prior to the state’s June 15 reopening. In the city, roughly 16 of every 100,000 vaccinated people are testing positive, while about 37 of every 100,000 unvaccinated individuals can expect a positive COVID test. Hospitalization for the unvaccinated is eight times higher than for the vaccinated. People who are half-vaccinated, or have only one out of two shots of an mRNA vaccine like those made by Pfizer or Moderna, count as unvaccinated when San Francisco collects this data.

While these numbers should be reassuring to those with a full course of vaccinations, Rutherford cautions that everyone — both the vaccinated and especially the unvaccinated — should do everything within their power to avoid coming down with a case of COVID-19. For those who have received the shots, that means abiding by local masking guidelines and mandates; for the unvaccinated, that means both masking up and making an appointment to get vaccinated.

“This is a nasty disease, and there are long-term consequences. You just don’t want to get this,” Rutherford says. “Laying out additional steps that people can take beyond vaccination, to help them avoid reinfection, is a prudent step.”

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