Hollywood trade paper asks if Sundance festival was an early COVID-19 hotspot

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What if the “festival flu” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — that annual mix of altitude sickness, cold weather, sleep deprivation and endless cocktail parties that leaves movie lovers feeling sick when they get home from Park City — was something else? What if it was COVID-19?

That’s the alarming question raised by the movie trade publication The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, with the headline, "Was Sundance a ‘First Petri Dish’ of Coronavirus in the States?”

And at a Wednesday news conference, Utah’s state epidemiologist said that it was “definitely possible” that COVID-19 was being transmitted at Sundance.

The answers in the article by Tatiana Segal are mostly anecdotal. The Hollywood Reporter talked to more than a dozen people who attended the festival in Park City this January, all of whom reported feeling severely ill afterward.

One of those interviewed was Ashley Jackson, 20, who said she started feeling sick on Jan. 27, her last day in Park City, for the premiere of the movie “Blast Beat,” in which she co-starred. Back home in Atlanta, her symptoms worsened: Sore throat, aches, and a violent cough. She went to an urgent care facility, where doctors told her she had the flu.

Jackson texted other Sundance attendees, and found “we all had the same symptoms, all had the cough, all had trouble breathing at night,” Jackson told The Hollywood Reporter. “We were all just miserable for three to four weeks. And then out of nowhere, we’re back living in society like nothing is wrong. And then I see all these coronavirus stories, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

“We’re sorry to hear that any of our festival attendees were unwell either during or after our January edition,” Sundance Institute said Wednesday in a statement. “We are not aware of any confirmed festival-connected cases of COVID-19.”

None of the people The Hollywood Reporter interviewed said they had taken an antibody test, to confirm whether what made them sick was COVID-19.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state of Utah’s epidemiologist, said the Utah Department of Health worked with festival organizers and the Summit County Health Department to set up screening and education programs about COVID-19 symptoms.

“Sundance seems like it was a really long time ago, but it was definitely at the beginning of this outbreak,” Dunn said Wednesday, at the state’s regular media briefing. “It is definitely possible that COVID-19 was circulating at Sundance.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first COVID-19 case on American shores on Jan. 21, in a man in Washington state who had recently visited Wuhan, China, where the virus is thought to have originated. Sundance started its 2020 edition two days later, on Jan. 23.

If the coronavirus was spreading around Park City during the festival, that would have been weeks before the first COVID-19 case in Summit County was confirmed on March 11.

Sundance attracts some 120,000 attendees to its movie screenings, in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort. The festival showcases American independent film, but international films have been a growing part of the lineup — and filmmakers, fans and media from around the world regularly attend.

A spokesman for Sundance Institute said Wednesday that plans are underway for the 2021 festival, set for Jan. 21-31 in Park City. Those plans, he said, are “taking into consideration every measure to plan for protecting staff and patrons, including social distancing in theaters and other public spaces, sanitation practices, and coordination with health authorities at local, state and the federal levels.”