Wednesday 22 March 2023

Back to Live: Dutch test how to have a party like it’s 2019

Photo: Lauren Comiteau

A series of test events have been held over the past two months to see whether venues can reopen safely before the end of the pandemic. The eight ‘corona-proof’ events, licensed by the government, included concerts, theatre performances, football matches and two music festivals that brought the pilot to a close last weekend. Lauren Comiteau went to one of them to get a first-hand look.

In pre-corona times, this fairground in Biddinghuizen east of Amsterdam was home to the 55,000-strong Lowlands Festival. But this past Sunday it was festival-lite, with 1,500 people spread out across two stages and a smattering of food trucks.

‘The first five minutes were weird and we didn’t know how to act,’ says 20-year-old Sanne. ‘But half an hour in and one drink later, we got used to it. It’s like getting back on a bike. It’s pure joy!’

That these mostly young people are here at all is extraordinary, and not just because tickets were hard to come by. After a year in lockdown, revellers are briefly free from the restrictions that limit household visitors to one per day and require them to be home every night by 9pm. As they dance, drink beer, sing and do an awful lot of the usually forbidden hugging, the euphoria is palpable.

‘Today is beautiful,’ screams 21-year-old Matthijs van Noy over the noise. ‘It’s the very first festival of this year. Finally, we can dance and sing and be all together. I really love it.’

‘We are back!’ says his friend, throwing his arm around him. ‘Yes, back to life!’ says van Noy.

Size doesn’t matter

‘It’s the smallest festival we’ve ever created,’ says Ruben Brouwer, CEO of MOJO Concerts, the events promoter that organises Lowlands. ‘But the size of the event doesn’t matter. It’s the importance, and this is very important to us and the whole industry.’

The events sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, with festivals, congresses and theatres shut down for the better part of a year. When they eventually reopen, organisers need to fill seats responsibly. That led to a consortium of them—including MOJO—together with Fieldlab Events, which runs the experiments, and four government ministries embarking on the aptly-named Back to Live! projects.

‘We want to see if we can create a safe environment within a festival setting so everybody can have a festival like it’s 2019 and still be safe,’ says Brouwer. ‘With the vaccination programme getting up to speed right now, together with rapid testing capacity, I think that will create a summer for us where events are normal like in pre-corona times.’

Researchers are trying to identify the risks and see how to reduce them. ‘For our business model, social distancing is not a healthy situation,’ says Pieter Lubberts, programme manager of Fieldlab Events. ‘We need an alternative to the 1.5-metre rule. That’s what we’re aiming for.’

How it works

To keep people safe, everyone at the events — journalists included — had to test negative for Covid-19 prior to entering and was booked in for a second free test five days later. Ticket holders at Sunday’s festival were fitted with electronic devices that monitored their movements so researchers could see how many people they came into contact with, how long for and how far apart they were. Festival goers were also asked to wear masks, but in contrast to some of the earlier events, they weren’t compulsory.

That’s all part of the research, which is as much about human behaviour as anything else. ‘We’re looking at behaviour and visitor dynamics,’ says Lubberts. ‘You see at festivals, they take off masks within five minutes, but in a theatre, 98% of the people wear them when you ask. It all depends on the type of event.’

For many of those lucky enough to score a golden ticket to Biddinghuizen this past weekend, they say that if this is the new normal, they’ll take it. ‘I’m having the time of my life,’ says 52-year-old Tinneke from Rotterdam, one of the older attendees. ‘Everybody’s happy. We miss this. We want to be free. We want to dance and hug and drink beer and just have a good time. That’s what life’s all about, right?’

Singer S10 says she hasn’t been on stage in over a year. She bought a ticket for the festival, but ended up performing after another act cancelled. ‘There were butterflies in my stomach, but it was so nice,’ she said. ‘I have a new album out and people were singing the songs. It was great.’

Guinea pigs?

No one at the festival seemed to worry about catching Covid-19. Some said they would quarantine from their families when they got home, a small price to pay for a day out. Of the 5,200 people who have attended the previous events, only five have come down with Covid-19 and organisers are investigating whether they’re related.

They also dismiss any criticism that it’s irresponsible to hold events with Covid-19 cases once again rising in the Netherlands.

‘This is not a medical experiment,’ says Brouwer. ‘We know everyone in here does not have Covid. We all agree that this is a very safe way to measure things. We’re not using people as guinea pigs.’

But they are using them to measure the success of the government’s new CoronaCheck app, which generates a unique QR code that can be scanned at the entrance to a theatre, sports event or festival as proof of a negative test result.

Organisers are planning for a return to the normal festival season by July, and the government has recently set up an emergency fund for them to use should they have to cancel any plans no longer covered by pandemic insurance. Although that’s only a few months away, the experiments, says Brouwer, are absolutely timely.

‘We have to learn from this because we don’t know what the future will bring,’ he says. ‘Maybe next year there will be something else, God forbid, but the results we get from these experiments can be used for the next decade.’

Game changer

Those results are expected in the next couple of weeks, but some things are already clear. ‘We know that upfront testing will be the big game changer for events,’ says Lubberts. ‘We see that with the right measures, you can reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 and you can have more capacity. That’s what we’re looking for.’

He says rapid testing in combination with face masks could allow theatres to fill half their seats in the near future.

Government officials have just announced an expansion of the test events. And if things go well with the Dutch pilot, the model could be rolled out to other countries, with Germany, England and Belgium having already expressed an interest. As many EU countries struggle with slow vaccination programmes and a third wave of infection, ‘corona-proof’ events could prove a lifeline—both economically and psychologically.

But on the small field in Biddinghuizen this past weekend, the coronavirus seemed far away. As the lead singer of the final act, Chef’Special, moved into the crowd to greet fans, it seemed like one final gift of normality before the festival gates shut promptly at 7pm and everyone rushed to get home before the night-time curfew.

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