Tulum’s Burning Man Knockoff Became a COVID Superspreader Event
Art With Me, an art and music festival that ran Nov. 11-15 in Tulum, Mexico, promised to “nurture personal growth.” Many attendees got COVID instead—and brought it back to the U.S.
Michelle* could barely move. She describes experiencing a heavy fever, diarrhea, fatigue, and the loss of taste and smell. “I couldn’t even get out of bed,” she recalls.
Around a week prior she had attended Art With Me, a four-day festival in Tulum, Mexico. Describing itself as “a community-driven festival that combines art, music, workshops, wellness and cultural experiences into a 5-day and 4-night journey to inspire change, and nurture personal growth,” it’s akin to Burning Man on the beach, boasting towering art installations, group meditations, and a whole lot of partying. As COVID-19 ravaged Mexico, claiming the lives of over 100,000 people—resulting in one of the world’s highest mortality rates—the organizers of Art With Me were undeterred, staging its third annual edition from Nov. 11-15.
Though the festival website contains a list of recommendations intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, from disinfecting surfaces to following “CDC regulated social distancing guidelines” and mask-wearing, a number of guests and performers who partook in this year’s Art With Me tell The Daily Beast that there was next to no mask-wearing or social distancing at the fest.
“I have nothing good to say about this event,” says Michelle, who is using an alias. She is one of several people we spoke with who say they contracted COVID-19 after attending Art With Me. “They served food too—all open barbecue finger food. Everyone was grabbing with their hands,” she remembers. “All I will say is that there was not one mask and I got more sick than I ever did in my entire life after that party.”
Art With Me offered a number of wellness and art activities during the day; by night, however, it transformed into an electronic music fest, with hordes of maskless people packing into hotels, restaurants, and cenotes (underground caves) to dance to DJ sets. The Daily Beast has observed a number of videos from Art With Me events showing hundreds of people writhing and flailing along to the music.
Be Svendsen, a Danish DJ who performed a cenote set during Art With Me, claims he got COVID following the fest, and that he “heard of at least 17 other people” who also came down with COVID after attending festival parties.
A Mexican DJ who performed a handful of Art With Me after-events, Xwnia Wolf, tells The Daily Beast “the only time I’ll be without a mask is when I play.” She says that she didn’t hear of anyone getting sick in the wake of her two cenote DJ sets, which were for about 150 people each, but that there “was another cenote party where this party, yes, I hear they have so many cases.”
Art With Me, as well as its organizers and the 21 hotels it partnered with, did not provide comment to The Daily Beast. But we did manage to reach Rodrigo Palencia, a 34-year-old from Guadalajara whose event-producing firm Petit Gatherings put on a cenote dance party on Nov. 16, one day after the fest. According to Palencia, “One of my partners was going to the parties at Art With Me and he tested positive.”
Palencia argues that the onus shouldn’t necessarily be on those arranging and hosting these Tulum events, but rather the participants who refuse to wear masks or keep their distance.
“In the end, it’s not about Tulum—it’s about people,” offers Palencia. “We are giving you a party and trying to do something to kill the stress that we all have, but just wear a mask. And people just don’t understand. And we can’t kick everyone out that’s not wearing a mask. It’s complicated.”
When I ask him why these events couldn’t test people prior, and perhaps even require a wristband denoting a negative test to gain entry, he questioned the accuracy of standard rapid tests—and pointed to a dearth of rapid PCR tests for COVID in the region.
“We don’t really have those tests yet, so that’s why it gets more complicated here,” he alleges.
Antonio Romero, an administrator at Hospital de Tulum, the hospital nearest to Tulum’s hotel zone, tells The Daily Beast that they’ve admitted “multiple people” with COVID who attended the Art With Me festival, and that they almost exclusively treat tourists who’ve contracted the virus. He says that the hospital typically receives about two to three American tourists a day with COVID, yet cautioned that the majority of their patients hail from Chile, Argentina, and other South American countries.
Medical experts are currently cautioning against any type of large gathering with no social distancing or masks. When I showed videos of Art With Me’s dance parties to Anna Yeung-Cheung, a microbiologist from Hong Kong who works at Manhattanville College, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“The way that they’re jam-packed on the dance floor—it’s very dangerous during this time,” asserts Yeung-Cheung. “It sounds crazy to go to a party where you’re not tested for COVID. Needless to say, it seems they are pretty reckless in doing that. And it only takes one.”
She cites her native Hong Kong, which managed to control the spread of the virus and minimize cases by “taking every step to close down this type of venue, and controlling the number of people per square feet in an area.”
To make matters worse, many Art With Me attendees appear to have brought the virus back to America. I spoke with Eleonora Walczak, the founder of Checkmate Health Strategies, a private COVID care and testing company operating out of New York City and Miami, who tells me that most of the people she tested positive for COVID over the past few weeks were either people who attended Art With Me or who came into direct contact with someone who did.
“What I’ve seen in my small cohort are people testing positive after coming back from Mexico—particularly Art With Me in Tulum,” Walczak, who is based in Brooklyn, says. “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. 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.”
Walczak contends that at a minimum, events need to implement a sound testing strategy to ensure that they don’t spread the virus—or, in the case of Art With Me, become a superspreader event.
“I understand the psychological component of wanting to socialize, but what I do find grossly negligent and highly irresponsible is, individuals who have enough money to attend these events have the appropriate tools to screen properly, and the fact that they’re not screening is what’s really troublesome,” explains Walczak.
She adds, “The same people that are complaining about the lockdown are perpetuating the cycle of lockdown. You’re just making it harder for us to squash this thing.”
While numerous people contracted COVID-19 after attending Art With Me, its lack of social distancing and mask-wearing is by no means out of the ordinary in Tulum, where tourists—many of whom are American—have come to vacation (and flout health guidelines).
“I don’t think it makes sense to point out a single small gathering, while a whole town full of people was, and still is, partying without masks and clearly not worrying or being careful in the slightest,” Svendsen, who travels all over the globe DJing, says. “Art With Me and Tulum in general should be the story.”
As of this writing, Mexico has had over 1 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 100,000 deaths. In Quintana Roo, the tourist-heavy state that is home to Tulum and Cancun, nearly 2,000 people have died from coronavirus. The situation has gotten so dire that in late November, the CDC assigned Mexico its highest-level advisory (4), warning that “travelers should avoid all travel to Mexico.”
Still, in Tulum the party goes on—and many are living in a state of denial.
“People just ignore the fact that there is a virus around, wear masks just because they have to in certain places like the supermarket, and live their lives as always,” says a representative for PLUTON, a digital marketing team handling events in Tulum. “This happens just in Tulum—the rest of the country seems to be taking it a little more serious. I prefer Tulum’s way.”