As concerts return, so do health and safety concerns

A crowd in front of a concert
Nelly on Lands End Stage. Photo by Brandy Collins.
A crowd in front of a concert
Nelly on Lands End Stage. Photo by Brandy Collins.

Concert festival season reemerged and there have been hundreds of concerts resurfacing all over the world. Halloween weekend Bay Area welcomed back the three day music festival, Outside Lands.

I have been going to Outside Lands for many years. I was there when Stevie Wonder gave a history lesson in musicianship. I have twerked to Lionel Richie singing the Commodores and Anderson Paak performing “Drugs” on the Panhandle stage. Childish Gambino reminded me of Teddy Pendergrass bathed in blue light with gold chain in taco meat chest hair and no shoes. Miguel—no other words will be said but his name. 

I felt I needed to lay the foundation that I love the concert-going experience. Outside Lands has been at Golden Gate Park since it started in August of 2008. I grew up in SF but had been living in Oakland since before the festival began. Any brave soul that can withstand three days of a music festival deserves a badge honor. I have attended the extent of three days twice. This year was my second time. 

Shuttle service was available for purchase from Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to the festival. However, anyone attempting to catch the last shuttle out of the festivities by 8pm may have missed performances from Tyler, the Creator, Lizzo, or The Strokes’ lead singer Julian Cabalancas rant on Bay Area vaccination card mandates. 

Some festival highlights included counting the number of Where’s Waldo costumes (I saw at least ten), chanting positive affirmations with Earthgang, Rico Nasty putting on show with two dancing Gizmos from the movie Gremlins, and Oakland’s own Kehlani starting off the set with “Gangsta” from the Suicide Squad soundtrack , “Seriel Lover,” and other crowd favorites from her album “It Was All Good Until It Wasn’t.   

It was great to see local East Bay eateries serving up lots of vegetarian options: Vegan Mob’s plant-based brisket with Smackaroni and collard greens, FOB Kitchen’s stir-fried vegetarian glass noodles, and Sobre Mesa’s Soy Chorizo Bocadillos. World Famous Hotboys’ held court with its Oakland-style Hot Chicken Sandwich. But long lines and wait times meant having to hastily choose a bite or risk missing a show. The overcrowding put a damper on any plans to sit and savor the food—not that there were many places to sit down.

a plate of vegan soul food including Mac n cheese and greens
The plate from Vegan Mob. Photo by Brandy Collins.

As the world edges toward pre-pandemic “normalcy,” including the return of “mega events” or events with over 10,000 people, there still remains the concerns regarding the health and safety of concert goers in attendance. 

Most recently, the disheartening events of AstroWorld Festival early November where eight people died and dozens more were injured when a dense crowd pushed toward the stage shows the need for more concern about safety and the overall well-being of concert-goers.

Closer to home, Outside Lands returned to the world after the pandemic lockdown and its postponement in 2020 on Halloween weekend in full force as if the pandemic didn’t still claim numbers of people contracting COVID-19. The crowd size of 75,000 music lovers at Outside Lands was far bigger than I had ever experienced in previous years. 

While the Bay Area in general has enforced a firm mandate for mandatory vaccination for anyone attending events or dining in restaurants, this doesn’t negate the festival organizers from their responsibility to the general public. The event has gotten so big it felt like a slog just to be in attendance. 

There were definitely some guidelines in place. Proof of vaccination was required for entry. Testing was available at the festival for $45. Because it was an outdoor event, masks were not required but some masked attendees were spotted. I wore my mask when watching shows, moving through large seas of people and while waiting in line for food. 

The restroom and handwashing facilities provided to service a large number of people at the festival felt as if organizers were barely meeting the minimum standard. Outdoor mega- events have no requirements for signs encouraging handwashing. It felt jarring to see no hand sanitizers or signs after nearly two years of receiving heavy-handed reminders for sanitation and hand-washing every time you touch something for more than a few seconds.  

Porta Potties were so full that people were sighted relieving themselves behind buildings. By Sunday, the smell of food wafting in the air was mixed with the smell of human excrement. Handwashing stations throughout the festival were few and far between. In one row of Porta Potties, I counted 13 wash stations that were covered in trash, rendering them useless for handwashing because there were no trash receptacles to use and the sinks were covered up from the trash. 

At times, staff and volunteer workers could be seen picking up trash; however, they were not clearing up the wash station. I don’t blame the workers who work and service the park itself. We are already in the “Great Resignation” and no one wants to clean up after adults, especially drunk adults. I lay the responsibility of festival organizers who contract the workers, lease facilities, rent every receptacle, washbin and Porta Potty to set a foundation for creating an environment, particularly during the times of COVID-19, to make it less cumbersome to do what should comes naturally after using the restroom—washing your hands and throwing away the paper towel into a trash receptacle. 

portable hand washing stations were filled with trash.
The bathroom and hand washing stations at Outside Lands. Photo by Brandy Collins.

Another perspective is that the joy of a festival is lingering with your friends in the grass listening to your favorite artists play while you sing along and snack. Instead, what we have now is an overlapping calendar of artists with festival goers leaving half way through the sets to run across a half mile field to cram into another show. Can you imagine being an artist on stage and seeing half of your audience disappear in the middle of your mini-monologue? 

In the past, there were a number of other concerns about the festival including overwhelmingly white and male headliners and complaints from neighbors of the festival overrunning their neighborhood. However, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free event which is held typically a week in August after Outside Lands, doesn’t get the same complaints. With every year, this particular festival has complaints about trash, noise, traffic increase, the tourists, the lack of local acts performing and the festival as a whole being a negative impact to the people. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the demographic makeup of the complaints may be a healthy dose of NIMBYism. 

Crowds are to be expected for any festival or concert experience. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers who become momentary friends while hearing new music or singing one’s favorite songs is what festivals are great for. 

But taking into consideration the previous years’ health concerns and the most recent events of Astroworld, festival organizers may need to set a new normal that considers giving a lot more room for people to feel safe. Having experienced Outside Lands personally in previous years and now this one during COVID times, Having experienced Outside Lands personally in previous years, and now this one during COVID times, I’m wondering: Has Outside Lands has gotten entirely too big for its britches?

Author Profile

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @msbrandycollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.

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