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From full steam ahead to cancelled: How are other countries handling concerts and festivals?

Pressure is mounting on the government to review the restrictions on live music events in Ireland.

The Tramlines Festival in Sheffield, UK in July 2021
The Tramlines Festival in Sheffield, UK in July 2021
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE GOVERNMENT IS facing growing pressure to ease restrictions on live events ahead of a Cabinet subcommittee meeting this week.

Live entertainment such concerts and festivals have been acutely impacted by restrictions since the start of the pandemic, with industry reps saying the sector is on its knees.

In June, a government grant scheme awarded venues and organisers financial support for specific live events, but several of those likely will not be able to go ahead under current public health measures.

That includes Electric Picnic, the popular Stradbally festival, which was awarded €423,135 and was planning to return in September until its license was refused by Laois County Council.

Yesterday, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said that public health officials wouldn’t be opposed to large-scale events where attendance was limited to people who are vaccinated – but the council has confirmed today that it will not be changing its decision.

Under the latest set of restrictions, organised outdoor events can only go ahead with a maximum of 200 attendees, or 500 at a venue with capacity for more than 5,000 people.

Theatres and cinemas may admit 50 people, but no organised indoor events like large concerts or shows are allowed.

In many countries, live events are fully underway. England, for one, no longer requires any face coverings, virus-related capacity limits, or the collection of contact details at festivals or concerts.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the Netherlands has banned all multi-day festivals during the summer after one was linked to more than 1,000 cases.

Here’s a look at what other countries are doing. 

Full steam ahead

In the UK, the government recommends that event organisers take certain precautions to avoid the spread of Covid-19 – but there are no strict requirements associated with events like the ones in Ireland. 

There are no limits on the number of people that can attend an event and no requirement to collect contact details.

Events can ask people to check in to an event through an NHS QR code (similar to a Digital Covid-19 Cert used in Ireland), but there is no legal obligation to and venues don’t need to turn someone away if they refuse.

The government’s guidelines for venues and organisers outline: “You may wish to take steps to ensure customers can attend as safely as possible, for example by introducing one-way systems to minimise crowding.”

Consider how you can reduce risk to staff who work with large numbers of guests. For example, installing screens can be beneficial if placed between people who will come into close proximity with each other. You could consider installing screens at ticket offices or box offices, and providing hand sanitiser for staff and customers.”

Stadiums, auditoriums and theatres are advised to consider providing allocated seating where possible or to use stewards to reduce risks from crowding.

The guidelines also suggest dividing a venue into zones to reducing mixing between groups of attendees and implementing queue management measures outside venues.

Large-scale live events in the UK first returned earlier this year under the Events Research Programme – a scheme to look at how the risk of Covid-19 transmission could be managed and reduced at events.

A negative antigen test was required for attendees at all of the cultural or music events.

At the first live music pilot event (Circus Nightclub, Liverpool), the club operated at 50% capacity. Face masks weren’t required once people were inside the venue.

Of 7,008 attendees across two days, there were five Covid-19 cases suspected to have been acquired at the event.

Near the end of July, two large festivals – Tramlines in Sheffield and Latitude in Suffolk – attracted around 40,000 and 35,000 attendees per day each.

Neither required face coverings and both operated at full capacity.

823 Covid-19 cases are suspected to have been acquired at Tramlines, while there were 676 instances of someone attending the event while they were likely already infectious with Covid-19.

At Latitude, there were 619 suspected acquired cases and 432 cases likely to have been infectious at the time of the event. 

suffolk-uk-july-23-2021-crowds-enjoy-the-opening-day-of-latitude-festival-2021-credit-thomas-jacksonalamy-live-news The opening day of the 2021 Latitude Festival in Suffolk Source: Thomas Jackson/Alamy Stock Photo

There were 48 suspected acquired cases at Download Festival in June, where there were around 10,000 attendees and no face coverings required.

An outdoor concert at Sefton Park; the BRIT awards in the O2 in London; an indoor theatre festival at The Grange and outdoor theatre at Grosvenor Park each saw no suspected cases arising from their event.

The BRIT Awards and the Grange, both seated events, only asked attendees to wear masks when they were moving around.

At Sefton Park, attendees were asked to wear masks up until entering the venue, after which they could remove them.

There were no face coverings required at Grosvenor Park. 

Festivals cancelled

By contrast, in the Netherlands, all multi-day music festivals have been cancelled after more than 1,000 cases were linked to one festival.

20,000 people went to the Vreknipt outdoor festival in Utrecht over two days at the beginning of July, with attendees required to show proof of vaccination, a negative test, or recovery.

Utrecht’s regional health board said that the infections could have happened at the festival or during associated activities like while travelling or during a pre- or after-party.

A spokesperson for the health board said that people were allowed to take a Covid-19 test that would admit them to the event up to 40 hours beforehand, which officials since decided was too long.

“We should have had a 24 hour [period], that would be a lot better because in 40 hours people can do a lot of things like visiting friends and going to bars and clubs.”

At the same time, the country was experiencing a spike in Covid-19 infections.

In June, cases in the Netherlands dropped to as little as 500 a day, their lowest level since the autumn of 2020, but they rapidly rose again to a peak of over 10,000 by the middle of July.

At that time, around 67% of the population had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 46% were fully vaccinated.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that festivals would be banned until September, meaning that several festivals scheduled for August were cancelled.

One-off events could go ahead, but any that took place across several days with overnight stays were stopped.

More broadly, the Netherlands current public health rules do not allow outdoor events without assigned seats that don’t use Covid-19 passes for entry.

Small-scale outdoor events are allowed to go ahead without assigned seats if there are fewer than 750 attendees and Covid-19 passes are used.

At outdoor events with assigned seats and Covid-19 passes, a maximum of 750 attendees is usually allowed – except for larger locations, which can fill two-thirds of their normal capacity. Attendees don’t need to stay 1.5 metres apart.

Indoors, events must have assigned seats.

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When Covid-19 passes are used at indoor events, up to two-thirds of the normal venue capacity can be filled and attendees do not need to stay 1.5 metres apart.

At events using Covid-19 passes for entry, attendees must register their details and be given a “health check”, which asks questions like whether they have Covid-19 symptoms or if a member of their household is infected (similar to forms that are used at some events or locations in Ireland).

For events and locations with a “continuous flow of people”, like a funfair – similar to what would have been seen at a festival – the maximum number of people is one per five square metres.

In May, the Netherlands hosted the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest at an arena in Rotterdam over three nights.

In total, there were nine shows associated with the contest that attracted 29,875 spectators overall.

48 of them later tested positive for Covid-19 and another 13 were found to have been infectious during the event, according to FieldLab, the company that ran the testing programme.

FieldLab said the incidence of the virus was an average of 1.6 cases per 1,000 people at each show, while the average infection rate in the country was 4.9 per 1000 people at the time of the contest.

rotterdam-netherlands-18th-may-2021-the-audience-applauds-at-the-end-of-the-show-during-the-first-semi-final-of-the-eurovision-song-contest-esc-at-ahoy-arena-credit-soeren-stachedpa-zentralbi Eurovision 2021 in Rotterdam Source: Alamy Stock Photo

A maximum of 3,500 audience members were allowed to attend each of the individual shows and all of them were required to have a negative Covid-19 test 24 hours before entry.

No standing was allowed and spectators had to wear masks when they were moving from their seats.

What’s next for Ireland?

Electric Picnic reapplied for a license to run the festival this year but Laois County Council has confirmed that it will not be reconsidering its decision.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s News at One, Caroline Downey from MCD productions said they had reapplied for a licence and needed an answer today or tomorrow if the festival was to go ahead.

“We have reapplied and asked for an answer by the close of the business day in light of what Stephen Donnelly had to say, as well as Tony Holohan,” Downey said.

In a statement, Laois County Council said: “There is no provision in law which enables Laois County Council to revisit that refusal or reconsider that application.”

“Notwithstanding the comments emanating from yesterday’s press briefing from NPHET nothing has changed as regards advice from the HSE, nor has there been any change to the Government Public Health Measures in place in respect of hosting of outdoor events, from the position that pertained on 4 August 2021 [when it originally refused to grant the festival a license],” the council said.

“The Planning Authority, Laois County Council, further notes that even if a new application for an event licence is made, the statutory timelines do not allow for the processing of a new application to facilitate the event on the dates as intended in the application previously submitted.”

At a National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) briefing yesterday, Dr Holohan said that the team “wouldn’t have a concern from a public health point of view to express about an event that happened that was confined to vaccinated people” when he was asked about large events in the context of Electric Picnic.

A plan for the next stage of easing of Covid-19 restrictions is set to be published at the end of the month.

NPHET is meeting today, followed by a Cabinet Covid-19 subcommittee meeting on Friday.

Entertainment, along with work and education, are expected to feature heavily in the discussions on what the next steps out of restrictions will look like.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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