Last week, The Daily Beast revealed that Art With Me, a wellness and dance music festival running from Nov. 11-15 in Tulum, Mexico, was a COVID-19 superspreader event, with multiple attendees and performers contracting the virus at the packed, hundreds-strong fiesta and transporting it back to Miami and New York City.
“I would say that 60-70 percent of my positives in the last couple weeks in New York City have been a direct result of either people coming back from Art With Me or who have been directly exposed to someone who attended Art With Me,” said Eleonora Walczak, founder of the private COVID care and testing company Checkmate Health Strategies. “And I test in Miami as well, and my testers there tell me that a lot of their positives are people coming back from Art With Me.”
But even as the impact of that fiasco came into focus, locals were bracing for more trouble: a more than two-week-long music festival starting on New Year’s Eve.
As COVID has devastated Mexico, killing more than 110,000 people and infecting more than 1.2 million—the highest case-fatality rate in the world at 9.2 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University—the partying hasn’t stopped in Tulum. Tourists, primarily from the United States, Europe, and South America, have descended on the beachy municipality in groups to dine, dance, and flout COVID restrictions.
After the Art With Me story ran, I received a number of emails from people in Tulum expressing fear and worry about the upcoming Zamna Festival, a dance music extravaganza set for Dec. 31-Jan. 16. With tickets nearly sold out, thousands of tourists are expected to attend the 17-day “immersive electronic experience,” dancing in massive crowds to a series of DJ sets.
Tourists’ pandemic partying in Tulum has angered locals, who feel their behavior is recklessly endangering the community, and many believe Zamna may end up being a fresh public health disaster.
“The hotel area has been very busy,” offered Michael*, an American expat who lives in Tulum who asked that his last name be withheld for professional reasons. He revealed that tourist ravers document their partying in Facebook and WhatsApp groups. “There have been a lot of digital nomads coming to Tulum since Southeast Asia kicked them out. They’re primarily all Americans, and being a local, we avoid them because they’re not wearing masks, hogging restaurant space, and not spending money, so we look forward to them leaving. And that’s a crowd that really parties, too.”
On Nov. 16, Tulum Mayor Victor Mas Tah announced that there would be no more large-scale events in his Quintana Roo municipality, citing an Oct. 31 shooting at the popular Vagalume Beach Club that left two dead and three injured. More than 500 people were reportedly in attendance that evening. Despite the tragedy, DJ dance parties packed with hundreds of revelers have raged on in cenotes (underground caves), nightclubs, and other venues in and around Tulum. Given that the mayor himself has an ownership stake in a popular cenote/venue in Tulum called Casa Tortuga and that the area’s economy is dependent on nightlife, it remains unclear if there will ever be any actual crackdown on big events.
“It’s pretty well known that our mayor, Victor Mas Tah, owns a big cenote/party venue called Casa Tortuga, and there are a lot of parties there,” explained Michael. “They don’t call it ‘bribery’ here—they call it ‘tips.’ But our point of view on those parties is that it’s destroying the quiet, destroying natural habitats, and then they leave.”
Organizers for Zamna Festival repeatedly declined to comment for this story. The Daily Beast also emailed every member of the Quintana Roo government listed on their website (including Victor Mas Tah), as well as the U.S. State Department, requesting comment on Zamna Festival and the partying in Tulum. While various members of the Quintana Roo government repeatedly gave us the run-around, passing The Daily Beast off to a seemingly endless string of representatives, the U.S. State Department issued a statement:
Conditions vary depending upon location, and we continue to recommend U.S. citizens exercise caution when traveling abroad due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. U.S. citizens considering traveling abroad should review the entire Travel Advisory for their destination(s) on Travel.State.gov.
The U.S. State Department also pointed to the CDC’s Travel Advisory for Mexico, which currently sits at its highest level (4), and recommends that “travelers should avoid all travel to Mexico” as “travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.”
Health experts who spoke to The Daily Beast strongly advised against attending any type of large-scale gathering, let alone a dance music festival where the possibility social distancing and mask-wearing seems unlikely at best.
“COVID is not controlled in the United States or in Mexico at this time, and so even if the event is outdoors with fewer numbers than typical, this is very concerning, because people can’t social distance in these spaces and are usually not wearing masks,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan. “It’s difficult to enforce the public health measures, because drugs and alcohol are involved too. This is very concerning, because we’re at an inflection point.”
Although young folks are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID, they may be the demographic most responsible for spreading the virus right now—and delaying a return to normalcy.
“Are they on a different planet than the rest of us and don’t realize there’s a pandemic going on?” Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Medicine, said of those attending dance parties in Tulum. “In the country as a whole, 18- to 49-year-olds are driving this pandemic. That’s where about 60 percent of the infections are occurring. And hospitalizations are going up even more so than deaths. So some of these 18- to 49-year-olds are ending up in the hospital… or could potentially even die from this disease.”
The pandemic partying in Tulum has divided members of the dance music community, with some DJs accepting the gigs and others forgoing paydays to err on the side of caution.
Soloiist, a Mexican DJ set to perform on the opening night of Zamna Festival, told The Daily Beast that Zamna “is so important to the electronic community” because Tulum “is one of the only places in the world where winter is like summer.”
He defended Zamna’s COVID protocols—urging mask-wearing and social distancing; temperature checks and antibody tests (which do not capture active infection)—though Art With Me had similar guidelines and still suffered a massive outbreak. Soloiist also further cited South Korea as a place that has hosted electronic dance parties for thousands. When reminded that the COVID situation there is quite different from Mexico, he replied, “Yes, it’s not the same,” adding, “It’s been almost a year of lockdown, and it’s been hard. I know people are anxious to go out. It’s a very complex and difficult subject.”
Another DJ—who requested anonymity to avoid being blacklisted from performing—said they feel that those in the EDM world should be putting the local community first rather than offering potentially deadly escapism.
“As a DJ who normally is in Tulum around this time working, it pains me that so many Europeans and Americans are still flocking to the site with little to no regard for the implications for the local population,” they said. “We know that poor communities are the most vulnerable to complications and death from COVID-19, and the local population of Tulum and other cities in Mexico will ultimately pay the greatest price, all for what? For a few nights of dancing and drugging? It infuriates me that these people don’t see the severity of the issue at hand and are willing to put other people’s lives at risk for their personal pleasure. Is partying really that important? No, it never is.”
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