Briefing

Events after Astroworld

What will big events look like in 2022, after COVID-19 and the tragedy in Houston?

At the annual Astroworld music festival in Houston last Friday, nine people were killed and hundreds injured when the crowd surged during rapper Travis Scott's headlining set. How will this tragedy, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shape the way large-scale events are held in the future? Here's everything you need to know.

What happened at Astroworld?

An estimated 50,000 people were at Houston's NRG Park for night one of the sold-out festival. Hours before the music started, hundreds of fans waiting to get inside the venue broke through the gates in the VIP security area, and several ended up being trampled, ABC 13 reports. Scott has a long history of encouraging people to go wild at his shows — in 2015, he was arrested at Lollapalooza in Chicago after telling concertgoers to climb over the barricades, and during a 2017 concert at New York City's Terminal 5, he urged a young man to jump from a second-floor balcony — and when he finally took the stage in Houston, "everything started to happen," audience member Anita Amper told CNN. "People just went berserk."

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said that "for whatever reason," the crowd "began to push and surge towards the front of the stage, which caused the people in the front to be compressed. People began to fall out, become unconscious." Witnesses described being so close to others they couldn't lift up their arms and seeing their fellow concertgoers trying to give people who had passed out CPR as they waited for help to arrive.

Could any of this have been prevented?

Astroworld, like most outdoor festivals, was standing room only. This is "the most dangerous and deadly" crowd configuration, Paul Wertheimer of the consulting firm Crowd Management Strategies told People, because it's easy for a space to become overcrowded. The National Fire Protection Association has set standards for such events to prevent incidents like crowd surges, including having at least one crowd manager per 250 attendees. They monitor what is happening in their area, so if they notice trouble brewing, it can be addressed before things spiral out of control. Houston does not have an official capacity limit for outdoor events, and Wertheimer told Rolling Stone that "frankly, capacity should probably be determined by some sort of government entity."

How do you stay safe at a large festival?

First, come dressed for success. Wear shoes that are sturdy so you don't get hurt if people step on your feet, and make sure they aren't slippery. You want to stay upright, because if you fall down, it will be difficult to get back up, and you don't want other people to trip and land on top of you. Upon arrival at a venue, make an exit plan before entering the crowd, and take note of the evacuation routes, Mark Herrera, director of safety and security at the International Association of Venue Managers, told People.

Research scientist Mehdi Moussaïd studies crowd behavior, and he told NPR that if you feel the crowd getting dense and this makes you uncomfortable, move away. If you're caught in a surge, Wertheimer advises not to yell or scream — no one can hear over the loud music. "Do not resist the crowd surges and crowd pressure because you'll burn up what energy you have, and you can't resist the extraordinary pressure," he said. "Try to absorb it, let it pass through you, just enough that you can remain standing." Moussaïd says it's best to steer clear of walls, because you can't go with the flow if a solid obstacle is in your way.

Will anyone face consequences for the Astroworld tragedy?

As of Tuesday, at least 18 lawsuits have been filed against Scott, festival producer Live Nation, and other organizers on behalf of victims who were killed or hurt. Attorney Benjamin Crump is representing the family of a 9-year-old boy who is now in a medically induced coma after being "trampled nearly to death by concertgoers." Crump said this "young child and his family will face life-altering trauma from this day forward, a reality that nobody expects when they buy concert tickets." This lawsuit accuses the organizers of "egregiously" failing to "protect the health, safety, and lives of those in attendance at the concert," and notes that Scott continued to perform even as "many individuals were seen lifting up the unconscious bodies of friends and strangers and surged them over the top of the crowd, hoping to send them to safety." (Scott's attorney said Friday the performer did not realize what was happening during his show.)

How might this change the way future events are managed?

The investigation into Astroworld is still in its preliminary stages, and experts say it's too early to know what might change. Many think it's likely it could become harder for festivals to get insurance, and there will be calls for more security personnel and checkpoints at a venue. In 2000, nine people died at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark during a Pearl Jam set, and in the wake of that tragedy, organizers met with crowd safety experts to enact best practices for large-scale events, which are now used throughout Europe. The techniques employed include limiting how many people can stand in front of a stage, leaving wide enough spaces in the crowd in case an ambulance needs to get through, and giving an independent security manager the power to end a show if necessary. 

Wertheimer told Rolling Stone he thinks real change won't happen until criminal charges are filed against the promoters and agencies "that sign off on these reckless events. Do that, and safety will change overnight. If nobody's criminally charged, families of the deceased will sue, those injured will sue. And four years from now, they'll settle with everybody. We'll do the legal dance, and then in between and after, it will be business as usual."

What about COVID-19? How has the pandemic altered concerts?

It depends on where you live. In Los Angeles County, for example, if there are more than 10,000 people at an outdoor venue, like the famed Hollywood Bowl, attendees must show their COVID-19 vaccination card or proof of a negative test within 72 hours, and once inside, they have to wear masks unless actively eating and drinking. The rules aren't so stringent in other, more rural areas, although many venues and promoters are setting their own safety policies where restrictions aren't in place. Several artists have started livestreaming concerts and selling tickets for cheaper than what it would cost to see them in person, and it could be that many decide to keep it up so fans all over the world can see them anytime, anywhere, and without the risks of in-person shows.

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