AUSTIN (KXAN) — On the same day the Austin City Limits Music Festival announced which artists will perform this year, a new report came out Tuesday to share suggestions about how organizers can hold large events safely during future COVID-19 waves.
City event leaders said they’re using the report to change COVID-19 rules and recommendations for special events, like ACL Fest.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium along with local public health experts worked together on an analysis of how different safeguards, like a masking or testing requirement, could affect the risk of infection at two types of events. They wrote their report is describing “a risk assessment framework to support event planning during COVID-19 waves.”
The team’s findings should not come as too much of a surprise, though, because they reinforce how beneficial testing before entry, proof of vaccination, masking and holding things outside can be even when the spread of the coronavirus is lower in the community.
The researchers said they looked at two hypothetical events set a month apart in Austin:
- A business conference with 3,000 attendees held on Sept. 1, 2021.
- An outdoor festival with 50,000 attendees happening Oct. 1 last year.
They said they found requiring people to get a COVID-19 test before the event would better prevent more from arriving sick over solely having everyone provide proof of vaccination. In the business conference study, for instance, they said having people test 48 hours prior to it would result in an estimated 20 attendees arriving infected, while a vaccination requirement would result in an expected 30 people arriving with COVID-19.
“Shortening the testing window to 24 hours prior to the event would reduce risks even further,” the report stated.
Their findings also highlighted how multiple strategies would better prevent COVID-19 transmission at events. When they looked at the outdoor festival hypothetical, requiring people to test, vaccinate and wear a face mask would have reduced the number of infections stemming from the event in the four weeks afterward from 895 to 120.
“Overlapping mitigative measures can dramatically reduce the number of infections that will happen at the event,” said Spencer Fox, director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
The research also concluded events held outdoors would be safer than indoor events. The team pointed out even though the hypothetical festival was more than 10 times the size of the imaginary business conference, “we estimate that it will produce only double the number of infections within the community during and following the event.”
“Having an event with, you know, tens of thousands of people, but having it outdoors is going to actually result in less transmission than having a much smaller event, maybe a couple 100 or 1,000 in an indoor, poorly ventilated location,” explained Fox.
Researchers hope these findings, along with a more detailed breakdown of the scenarios they examined, can provide a resource for organizers to check when they’re strategizing how to keep people from getting sick at events.
However, they admit, “our framework makes a number of critical assumptions that may not hold for all events, especially as SARS-CoV-2 and our arsenal of medical countermeasures continues to evolve.”
ACL Fest and other special events
Currently, ACL Music Festival’s website indicates measures like masking or proof of a negative COVID-19 test or vaccination may be required this year, stating the rules will be communicated “as early as possible.”
Demitry Shatsila hopes organizers don’t have those requirements.
“I take my chances. I’m vaccinated, but I don’t care … people should do whatever they want to do,” he said, saying he doesn’t believe in having to provide proof of vaccination.
Still, he plans to go to the festival this year. It’s on his bucket list after moving to Austin from Europe a few months ago.
“It’s just one of those things you have to do when you’re in Austin,” he said.
The festival is a special event, which means organizers have to submit a COVID-19 safety plan with the Austin Center for Events.
Right now, those rules and recommendations include things like posting health signs. Spokesperson Sara Henry said they’re looking at UT’s new report and will announce changes “as soon as possible.”
“I think we would all like to sunset these requirements as soon as it’s safe to do so,” she said.
Henry said they have been meeting with Austin Public Health every 30 days or so to review COVID safety plan requirements and current cases and update accordingly.
“The requirements for, you know, whether or not you can have events of a certain threshold — that has evolved as the COVID conditions have lessened, and so I think those are the types of things we’ll start to see loosen up a little bit,” Henry said.
Austin public health experts said they could only connect a total of 36 COVID-19 cases to ACL last year.
After the city wrapped up its first in-person South by Southwest since the pandemic began, experts said they traced roughly 100 COVID-19 cases to the March event.
In an email to KXAN, APH said right now, its “epidemiologists and case investigators are monitoring clusters primarily related to small gatherings where people are in close proximity and feel comfortable unmasking.”
That includes things like school field trips or family gatherings.
They also added its testing site was busier than usual this week after Mother’s Day weekend.
Austin and Travis County are currently considered at a low level of risk for COVID-19, which does not recommend masking for anyone. Earlier this year in March, Austin Public Health announced it would no longer use numbered stages and instead follow the CDC’s low, medium and high risk-based model to indicate where the coronavirus situation stands locally.