PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER: A the façade of this building at Burning Man 2022 was made of pieces of old hardback book covers, as was the interior of the structure.

When some revelers returned from this year’s Burning Man festival, which ended on Labor Day, they brought back a coating of alkali dust, happy memories – and COVID-19.

The event in the Black Rock Desert 100 miles north of Reno drew about 80,000 participants. The current strain of the virus is the most communicable to date, so some cases at a major event would be expected. There are no official figures available about festival participants who subsequently tested positive, but anecdotally, a multitude of positive tests have been reported among burners in Northern Nevada, California and elsewhere.

One Reno attendee who didn’t want to be identified said his camp had 34 participants and as of Sept. 13, eight had tested positive for the virus, including himself and his partner. Another burner said while she didn’t contract COVID-19, she “heard of a handful of confirmed COVID cases from people I know from both Reno and out-of-town.”

For other local participants, the COVID-19 cases remained anecdotal.

Larry DeVincenzi, owner of Rum Sugar Lime cocktail bar in Midtown Reno, is a regular Burning Man attendee. He said he heard about cases at the festival, but didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of any. “We danced a bit in the outdoor crowds, but have yet to catch it fortunately,” said DeVincenzi, who noted he left the event on Sept. 3, before the ceremonial burning of the wooden and neon man. “Our camp is feeling fine.”

Burning Man organizers said they’ve been monitoring reports of positive tests, but the numbers aren’t alarming.

“We have seen reports from participants and camps that some people are apparently testing positive now,” said Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley, associate director of communications for the Burning Man Project. “The numbers don’t seem extraordinary, though we don’t have a method to validate that information. It’s natural that we would hear from those who test positive over those who test negative for COVID-19.”

He noted that “as the week went on, people let go of their personal health and safety protocols. We know of other things such as sinus infections, colds, and gastrointestinal ailments” reported by participants.

Social media sites lit up with accounts of positive tests and early departures in the days prior to Labor Day and thereafter.

“It’s still too early to tell if my camp is an aberration, but as of now, (about) 35% of us are Covid positive, and I expect we’ll see that tick up,” a reddit user posted on Sept. 3. “(There are) 9 (positives) out of 26… but we only started testing positive (Aug. 2) around noon.”

The user reported that although all the members of his camp were all fully vaccinated, including booster shots, one tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 shortly after arriving on the playa and others got sick or tested positive without symptoms shortly thereafter.

Another reddit user reported that at least four people in his camp of about 80 participants, including himself, tested positive Sept. 1 and left the festival. “I heard at least two more camp mates have tested positive since,” the user wrote on Sept. 3. “Everyone in camp is fully vaccinated. (I) really wasn’t expecting it to spread this easily in an outdoor, desert environment. In hindsight, I guess that was pretty naive. I’d managed to avoid it for 2.5 years.”

Burning Man is an outdoor festival, so a very large number of transmissions wouldn’t be expected, said Dr. Mark Pandori, director Nevada State Public Health Laboratory and associate professor of Pathology and Lab Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine.  

“I would expect a lot fewer cases (than at indoor venues), because it was outdoors,” he said. “The data is substantial that it’s a lot harder to transmit outside.” But he noted that inside tents and when the tents are close together, transmission would be expected. “This is a very, very infectious virus, so you are going to get transmission, but I think the outdoor nature of it would dull that substantially… I would be shocked if we saw a huge outbreak from Burning Man.”

On the other hand, he said, the dusty desert provides the virus with a better hunting ground. “Viruses survive better in dryer environments than in humid ones,” Pandori said. “But even a little bit of wind drives it away.”

It’s unlikely that communities will be able to link a lot of cases to Burning Man participants because so many people use the self-test kits rather than going to a government testing station. “It’s anecdotal at this point,” he said.

Pandori said the recent Emerald City Comic Con event in Seattle in August (which drew more than 65,000 attendees) was conducted indoors, but no major COVID-19 outbreak was reported. That event, he noted, had proof-of-vaccination and masking requirements. Prior to the Burning Man event, organizers announced that “there will not be any health or COVID-19-related entry requirements for Black Rock City this year.”

Burning man officials said they did what they could to raise awareness of potential infections.

“Before the event, we shared our Community Cultural Commitments,” Debucquoy-Dodley said. The guide suggests vaccinations, testing prior to arrival and advice about masking and leaving the venue if symptoms surface.

“Through our blog, our 220,000-plus recipient newsletter, our social media channels, and more, we shared guidance for all participants to help minimize the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 at the event,” he said. “(Including)  what to do if folks suspected they had COVID-19 while in Black Rock City, and how to access related support services on (the) playa. We also had protocols in place for how to best support our paid and volunteer staff.”

The Reno man who said eight of the 34 people in his camp eventually came down with the virus, said his companions agreed to be fully vaccinated prior to the event. “That’s us, but God knows what the other camps decided,” he said. “.. The whole idea of Burning Man is going wild in the desert. I don’t think a lot of people were into rules.”

PHOTO/JELLE KLING: A view of some of the art installations at Burning Man 2016. The dry, dusty conditions in the Black Rock Desert are well suited to the survival of the virus that causes COVID-19, scientists say.

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  1. This is a scandal. The organization allowed antivaxxers to run the show. I know for a fact that originally the organizers wanted vaccine proof. Then the potential paying attendees complained…..and well money talks. I’m a five timer, but now I will never go back. Shame on you, Burning Man!

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