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Hinterland Packs Avenue Of The Saints Amphitheater

As in years past, the festival delivered an outstanding weekend of music, with an unreal lineup that “melted Iowa” in the words of one festivalgoer on Twitter. This year’s Hinterland, however, had a different vibe. Even though love and harmony were in the air, so was anxiety about COVID-19.

Last Thursday, Sam Summers, the festival’s main organizer, encouraged festivalgoers to get vaccinated and to bring a mask with them to the event.

“You know, let’s use our best judgement here,” he said. “If you’re in a line, and you’re waiting to get food or get in, throw on your mask. We try to keep the festival as laid back as possible, but at this point, this is a good time to keep doing the right thing in mind.”

An attendee masks up en route to the hilltop.
Lindsey Moon
An attendee masks up en route to the hilltop.

He clearly communicated to concertgoers that it was their duty to keep themselves safe this weekend at the event, which is exactly what leadership in our state has been communicating to all of us since March of 2020.

“It’s been a long time for live music, as you know, and everyone is excited. It’s been a great lineup,” said Luke Dickens, another organizer for the event on Sunday. “We heard the concerns about parking, and we added 800 parking spots on Saturday. We’ve got four to five times the number of porta-potties. We’ve got three times the number of food vendors. And we’ve tried to make safety our number one priority. Not having shuttles was hard for us, and that’s part of what happened with parking. We just didn’t feel right packing people into a hot bus. We asked people to get vaccinated, and we asked people who weren’t vaccinated to wear a mask."

Event organizers for any event, including Hinterland, have been making hard decisions and have been pivot planning in the face of unprecedented situations - just like all of us - in the hellscape that's existed since March of 2020. The situation regarding COVID-19 has changed drastically in Iowa in the last two weeks. The guidelines they have to work with are viewed as political, are contested due to circling conspiracy theories and are constantly changing.


They did, however, have the power to be louder and more transparent with ticket holders about what percentage of capacity they were selling the venue to and the number of people in attendance. Both are factors that the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinic’s Dr. Melanie Wellington recommends as keys for concertgoers to assess the risk of catching COVID-19.

Last Tuesday, IPR’s Clay Masters reported that the festival expected 14,000 attendees, which is the festival’s current attendance record, set in 2019 during Hozier’s set.

The fest said they sold out first round festival passes in 10 minutes back in April when they announced Hinterland 2021 as a limited capacity event. They said they might put extra tickets on sale pending the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and the number of cases in Iowa.

On July 15, they sent a press release to media with the set times and included information that there were more single-day passes on sale for Friday and Sunday. That was the last of the communication from event organizers about how many people they were expecting to host.

After that, single day passes to the festival continued to be sold through Sunday night, the last day of the event.

On Sunday, Officer Jonathan Scott from the Indianola Police Department said he was informed the event expected between 17,000 and 18,000 people all three nights. Madison County Emergency Management Director Diogenes Ayala also confirmed that estimate.

Festivals do not announce their ticket sales, and they rarely announce in advance of an event how many people are expected. There are a lot of reasons for this, but in a pandemic, this information is more important to ticketholders than it was before.

"What happened to reduced capacity?"

Concertgoers commented on social media over the weekend about how many more people were at the event than they anticipated, and some even packed up and left because they felt uncomfortable with so many people in the crowd with them.

“We thought there would be a reduced capacity, and that’s not happening. There’s a lot of people here,” said Dr. Leah Casanave, who works for the Douglas County Health Department in Nebraska. “We thought that would be different. I mean yeah, I’m worried about the delta variant. We’ve been sticking back. We’ve not been going into the pit. We’ve been staying really far away from the stage.”

Dr. Casanave has been working in public health for the last year, and she said she stuck around because there was room to socially distance and she wanted something normal.

“We’ve felt good that there was room to socially distance. When I’ve been in the food section, I’m putting my mask on. And you know, I haven’t had a vacation in six months. We just wanted to come and listen to the music and do what we’ve always done.”

Rolling Stone Magazine reported on Aug. 6that officials are investigating COVID-19 outbreaks tied to two recent outdoor music festivals: Faster Horses Festival in Michigan and Pendleton Whisky Music Fest in Oregon. The outbreaks raise fresh concerns about the safety of events, even when they are outdoors, as the more transmissible delta variant spreads.

Madeleine King

“Officials in Michigan say at least 96 cases can be traced to the Faster Horses Festival, which took place in Brooklyn, Michigan, from July 16 to 18, while authorities in Oregon are looking at 62 cases tied to July 10’s Pendleton Whisky Music Fest in Pendleton, Oregon. In Michigan, one person considered a “secondary case” — infected by someone who contracted Covid at Faster Horses — is hospitalized. Neither event required attendees to be vaccinated,” Brian Hiatt wrote for the magazine.

“These events are the warning shot across the bow,” he wrote, quoting Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director for infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “I think we’re finding it does matter what you do outdoors,” Landon adds. “And even though people are vaccinated, it looks like we may need to be more careful with super-crowded events.”

Hiatt continues in his report that Landon is most concerned about pit-type areas and crowded festivals. Even seats at a stadium are far more safe than those scenarios, she says, thanks to increased distance between fans and the lack of the countless close contacts that occur when wading through a sea of people. “When you get people in an orderly setup, facing the same direction, it’s really different,” she says. “Even that couple of feet of distance between the seats makes a big difference, compared with being in a pit at a show.”

Given the report, Dr. Casanave says that when she returns home to her one-year- old daughter and office, she’ll mask and monitor herself for symptoms and get tested if they arise.

“If you’re vaccinated, I would say, pay attention and wear your mask at work. I’m not going to quarantine per se, but I will be wearing my mask just to protect other people. If you want to test, wait 3-5 days, and then I would recommend a PCR test."

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer