Thousands of Burning Man fans violated social distancing laws to hold their own festivals in the Nevada desert and on California beaches

Held every year since 1986, the annual Burning Man festival has become a cultural juggernaut. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The coronavirus pandemic led 2020’s Burning Man, planned for the week leading up to Labour Day, to go virtual for the first time in 30 years. But this didn’t stop thousands of fans from holding their own makeshift festivals.

Despite social distancing guidelines and restrictions on in-person gatherings, crowds of Burning Man’s most avid fans were spotted celebrating the festival on beaches in San Francisco and in the Nevada desert, where the event’s Black Rock City fairground customarily sets up each year.

Videos onsocial media capturing the illegal gatherings — including one Saturday on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach with over 1,000 people reported — led to fierce criticism of attendees’ disregard of the pandemic. Other photos showed similar gatherings with music and campfires on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, as well as cars and RVs camped out in the Nevada desert.

Joining in on the condemnation was San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who took to Twitter to call attendees “reckless” and “selfish” for crowding the city’s beaches.

Ahead of Burning Man’s final night on Sunday, Breed said San Francisco police were stepping up their patrols and closing Ocean Beach’s parking lot to prevent another large gathering.

Although California’s Bay Area was celebrated early on in the pandemic for taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the area started to see an massive uptick in reported cases in July and August. There are nearly 100,000 cases reported in the San Francisco area as of Monday afternoon.

Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area including Black Rock City, told news outlets it was “aware” of campers gathering in the desert, but said they were allowed to do so as long as they adhered to social-distancing rules.

Burning Man Project, the organisation behind the festival,released a statement late Sunday night urging those “honour[ing] Burning Man culture” to “refrain from gathering unsafely in large groups.”

The music and arts festival regularly draws more than 80,000 attendees each year, including crowds of affluent influencers and Silicon Valley techies, who set up a temporary miles-wide campsite in the Nevada desert called Black Rock City that can be seen from space. However, Burning Man organisers said in April they would be holding the event virtually this year, and offered refunds to those who had already bought tickets.

Burning Man was also a recipient of a large loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program set up to help businesses stave off the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic. According to filings, Burning Man received between $US2 million and $US5 million in PPP loans.