California's Coachella will kick off Friday for the first time since 2019, with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the premier desert music festival, as the United States sees Covid-19 cases edge up.
The mammoth event that takes place over two three-day weekends -- and this year features Billie Eilish, Harry Styles and the Weeknd with EDM stars Swedish House Mafia as headliners -- traditionally kicks off the year's summer concert circuit.
Coachella's 2020 edition was scrapped as the coronavirus pandemic came into full force, and two years of chaotic cancellations, rescheduled shows and lineup shakeups ensued.
As it returns after a three-year hiatus, Coachella is considered a bellwether for the multi-billion-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 revelers daily from all over the nation 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 public health department of Riverside County, 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 ticking up, with the United States averaging approximately 38,000 cases a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The vast majority of new cases stem from the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant, known as BA.2, 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.
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 chaos agent 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, while 2020's anticipated headliner Frank Ocean is set to return to the desert in 2023.
Also on deck are French rockers L'Imperatrice, superstar DJ Stromae, recent Grammy winner Arooj Aftab, Palestinian DJ Sama' Abdulhadi and South Africa's Black Coffee, who made Grammy 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 Friday evening.
Coachella is a major draw for Indio, the city where it takes place, a desert municipality of just under 95,000 people whose slogan is "The City of Festivals."
Along with Coachella, Indio also hosts major concerts including the folk and country event Stagecoach.
According to Indio spokesperson Brooke Beare, the city receives roughly $3 million each year in direct revenue from the festivals, including ticket-sharing dollars and transient occupancy taxes from campers.
Beare told AFP the area "benefits greatly" in every sector, from hospitality to restaurants and gas stations -- and from the festivals themselves, which she said "bring a vibrancy and energy that is unparalleled."
Mason Fouad, owner of the liquor store Mirage in Palm Springs, where many Coachella attendees stay, told AFP that business at his shop was already up 30 percent.
"Liquor business blooms in any festival," Fouad said. "Everybody is expecting this Coachella will score a way higher record than all the other Coachellas, because everybody misses this."