California's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will kick off on Friday for the first time since 2019, with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the desert music festival, as the US sees Covid-19 cases edge up.
The mammoth event takes place over two three-day weekends and traditionally kicks off the year's summer concert circuit. This year, Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, The Weeknd and EDM stars Swedish House Mafia are headlining.
Coachella's 2020 event was scrapped as the coronavirus pandemic came into full force, and two years of chaotic cancellations, rescheduled shows and line-up shake-ups ensued.
Covid-19 and Coachella
Coachella is considered a bellwether for the multibillion-dollar touring industry that's still on shaky ground after persistent pandemic setbacks.
After other large-scale festivals including Lollapalooza last year required proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 result, Coachella this winter announced it would not require any such mitigation measures, including masks or social distancing.
The festival is held mostly outside, welcoming some 125,000 revellers daily from across the US and abroad, many of whom camp and fill up hotels nearby.
There will be two testing sites on festival grounds. Jose Arballo, a Senior Public Information Representative for the Riverside County Department of Public Health, where Coachella takes place, said there also would be bolstered testing facilities nearby.
"Any time you have large groups of people gathering in public settings there's some issues there, but we're hoping that more people will be vaccinated ... and that more people will wear masks anyway," he told AFP.
"If people aren't feeling well, even if it might cost them something financially, we hope they can forgo going."
Arballo said that case numbers in the county had "plateaued in the last couple weeks," but "other people will be coming in from all over the country and other places in the world where maybe the case rates aren't that low."
He also noted that unreported at-home testing has possibly skewed case rate data downward, and anticipated the county would be able to assess the festival's public health impact by the middle of next week, just ahead of the festival's second string of dates.
Nationwide, Covid-19 cases are down sharply from where they were in January but recently have started to increase, with the US averaging about 38,000 cases a day, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The vast majority of new cases stem from the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant, known as BA2, according to the CDC.
Some universities have reinstated mask mandates as has the city of Philadelphia, but for the most part regulations nationwide, including in California, remain relaxed.
Acts playing at Coachella 2022
Major acts playing sets at Coachella include Megan Thee Stallion, Phoebe Bridgers, Doja Cat and Brazil's Anitta.
The Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia were last-minute additions after Kanye West unceremoniously pulled out of his headliner spot.
Travis Scott pulled out after a deadly concert stampeding tragedy at his Astroworld show in Houston last year.
Also on decks will be French rockers L'Imperatrice, superstar DJ Stromae, recent Grammy winner Arooj Aftab, Palestinian DJ Sama' Abdulhadi and South Africa's Black Coffee, who made history last week after winning a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album, the first African act to do so.
And in a last-minute surprise, Arcade Fire will play a set on Friday evening.