Here's what we know about ACL Music Festival's event permit, COVID-19 policy, ticket exchanges and more
After canceling last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Austin City Limits Music Festival is scheduled to take over Zilker Park for the first two weekends in October. With Austin still under Stage 5 coronavirus risk guidelines, questions remain about what the massive event, which typically draws 75,000 people daily, will look like this year. Here's what we know.
I heard Austin didn't give ACL Festival a permit. Is it even going to happen?
Recent reports that the city of Austin had not yet issued a special event permit for the festival were misleading, because that permit has historically not been issued until closer to the event date.
"This isn't uncommon," city representative Bryce Bencivengo told the American-Statesman on Sept. 9. While he could not cite the specific date when the 2019 ACL Fest permit was issued, he noted that a review of records indicated that "it wasn't before Sept. 26," which was eight days before that year's festival began.
We also asked the Austin Parks & Recreation Department for details of the city's contract with ACL Fest and got a similar answer. "It’s still being finalized at this time," Kanya Lyons, parks department public information specialist, said. "It will be signed and available soon."
Do I need to get a COVID-19 test before I go to ACL Festival?
It's not clear right now, which is bound to confuse fest-goers.
According to guidelines on the ACL Fest website, fans will be required to show either a printed copy of a negative COVID-19 test performed within 72 hours or proof of full vaccination at the gate each day. Test results must include your name, the date of test and the negative test result, which means a picture of a home test isn't going to cut it.
A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive their second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The last day to get that final shot and be considered fully vaccinated for ACL Fest is Sept. 17 (for Weekend 1) and Sept. 24 (Weekend 2).
When the Statesman sought confirmation with the city, though, things became murkier.
On Aug. 27, the Austin Center for Events announced updated COVID-19 guidelines for events like ACL Fest that take place on city property or parkland and require a special events permit. The new guidelines state that indoor events with 1,000 or more people and outdoor events with 2,500 or more people must screen event attendees at entrances and require proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before the event.
On Sept. 1, the Statesman asked if events like ACL Fest could substitute proof of vaccination for a negative COVID-19 test under the new guidelines. Sara Henry, public information and marketing program manager in the Austin Center for Events, did not directly answer. Henry said “the City of Austin is not imposing a vaccination requirement on events. As a result, an event organizer makes vaccination-related decisions independent of the city.”
Then on Friday, interim Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup said at a media briefing, "At this current time, the health and safety guidelines are recommending that event organizers ask for proof of a negative test within 72 hours of the event. Of course, a patron has the option of opting out of testing by showing proof of vaccination."
"Due to the size of the event," Sturrup said, it "wouldn't be an efficient practice" for Austin Public Health to provide on-site testing.
As of this writing, Henry had not responded to a request for comment on Friday.
Can I still get ACL Festival tickets?
When three-day passes to ACL Festival went on sale back in May, vaccines were becoming widely available and cases were way down. They sold out in record time. The same thing happened a week later when the festival released single-day tickets.
For weeks, verified ticket prices on the festival's official ticket exchange site were all running $100 or more above asking price. But with the summertime surge of COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, prices for three-day passes have come down considerably. On Thursday, three-day passes were available for both weekends of the festival for less than this year's $275 early-bird price. Single-day tickets for both Saturdays of the festival and the first Friday were still more than $200. (The original sale price was $135.) Sunday single-day tickets were available for $150.
The festival has added a fan waitlist for tickets. You can sign up with your email address, mailing address and payment information; if a ticket becomes available, you will automatically be charged.
What if I test positive for COVID-19 or I have to quarantine? Is the ticket exchange my only refund option?
Fest-goers are asked to take a fan health pledge stating that they will not attend ACL Fest within 14 days of a positive COVID-19 test; exposure to someone who has tested positive; or if they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
If you test positive for COVID-19, you can submit a refund request at contact.frontgatetickets.com. There's a section on the form where you can attach a copy of your positive test results.
If you are within the 14-day isolation window following a confirmed exposure, you are also eligible for a refund. Festival organizers ask that you send a detailed description of your circumstances, your order number and ticket details to email@example.com.
Will I need to wear a mask at ACL Festival? It's outside, right?
According to the city's new special events guidelines, organizers must develop social distancing strategies and implement “mask zones” in outdoor event areas where maintaining 6 feet of distance between attendees is not possible.
As anyone who's ever attended ACL Fest knows, there is more jostling and clamoring for a good position than distancing of any sort in front of all the main stages. Compliance with mask mandates at Austin music events has been spotty at best.
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It's unclear how mask requirements would be enforced at the park. "We're still working with (ACL Fest) organizers on how to meet safety requirements for their event," city representative Bencivengo told us last week.
The festival's website says information related to masks will be released closer to the festival dates.
Asked when that information would be available, Bencivengo said that hadn't yet been determined. "We don't want to give a date and then have something come up — a different spike or a substantial drop" in COVID-19 cases, he said.
How have other big, outdoor events gone this summer in Austin?
The closest parallel to ACL Fest is the event's sister fest, Lollapalooza, which took place in Chicago's Grant Park the last weekend in July. Lollapalooza had the same requirement for either a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination and the same fan health pledge that ACL Fest has implemented. Following the festival, Chicago health officials said the event did not lead to a surge in coronavirus infections.
Writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, Brown University physician and health policy researcher Ashish K. Jha compared Lollapalooza to the 10-day motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, that took place without enhanced COVID-19 safety measures in August. That event preceded a 600% spike in infections in South Dakota, although Jha thinks indoor afterparties probably were a key factor in the rate of spread and not the outdoor rallies.
(Closer to home, we're watching to see what happens in the wake of University of Texas football resuming full capacity events without any COVID-19 screening at the door.)
In Jha's analysis of these events, the "pandemic playbook" for large events was "straightforward."
"Ensure you have a highly vaccinated population. Verify people’s vaccination status. Require rapid and frequent testing, especially for the unvaccinated. Improve indoor air quality, and use masking intermittently when needed," he wrote.
"[ACL Fest] organizers are putting in place mitigation strategies that were used at Lollapalooza in Chicago. People are expected to be either vaccinated or have a negative test. And, as a result of that, that provides a level of safety and decreases risk," Sturrup said at the media briefing on Friday.
Heather Osbourne contributed to this report.