Sunday 13 June 2021

Re-opening of events industry: We have veered from one extreme to the other

Pictured above: the test event at a Liverpool night club

This column first appeared in Malta Today

We are all still acutely aware of how last year’s infamous pool party and a village feast took us from zero cases to a second wave in what seemed like a blink of an eye. Then along came the UK variant in January and before we knew it, we had reached 500 cases.

So when people speak about their hesitancy towards the idea of re-opening of mass events, it is perfectly understandable. In fact, this time round the cautious, staggered opening approach has been applauded as most industries now know which date they have to look forward to and can plan accordingly.

Still missing from the list, however is the events sector which basically includes a wide-ranging spectrum: everything from concerts to gigs to a plethora of cultural events. And, according to the Public Health Authorities, it will remain missing, as Prof Gauci has categorically stated that no mass events will be held this summer. The problem with this blanket ban is that it has thrown all events into the same basket and there does not seem to be any differentiation between a feast (which is basically an uncontrolled street party) and other events.

Watching the Eurovision semi-finals this week, many experienced palpitations at seeing a real audience without masks and, much to our anxiety, sitting close to one another. However, the contest being held in the Netherlands this year was carefully controlled and monitored to determine how to safely re-open to events with large audiences without causing new outbreaks.

This follows the test events which started in the UK on 16 April, with different scenarios (indoors, outdoors) and different seating capacities, with the smallest crowd being 1,000 at a business event, to the largest being the FA Cup final with 21,000 fans. In the Liverpool night-club test event, the 3000 strong crowd was standing and could mix freely. It has to be stressed that everyone who attended these events had agreed to being tested before they went and again, five days after.

Enough time has now passed for real time data to have been collected and the results so far are encouraging. According to the Times (UK),

“Holding mass events without masks and social distancing can be as safe as going to a restaurant or shopping centre, government trials suggest. Preliminary data from the events research programme is understood to have found that with screening, improved ventilation and other mitigating factors the risk of virus transmission can be significantly reduced, reducing fears that sports matches and concerts could cause big outbreaks.

“…the events needed much higher levels of organisation than those before the pandemic, with strict requirements that participants prove they had recently tested negative, reduced capacity and protocols about entering venues to minimise mixing. However, the results suggest as long as they are adhered to, risk of outbreaks can be kept low….People were monitored by CCTV and wore devices that showed how many others they came into contact with, whether they shook hands or hugged, and how far apart they stood.”

And, just as I was writing this, the British health officials released the news that only 15 people out of almost 60,000 who attended the nine pilot events have since tested positive for coronavirus.

With such scientific evidence already available, I find it hard to fathom why locally we have not (a) tried to replicate a similar pilot study on a controlled mass event ourselves or (b) used the UK conclusions to take the decision to allow certain events to take place this summer. The emphasis, of course, has to continue to be on careful controls through swab tests, the usual mitigation measures and only for events held outdoors. But at some point we must take the plunge and move forward, especially when our vaccine roll-out has been so successful. Surely a nation which is on its way to being fully vaccinated should be able to live a normal life which is not just limited to dining out?

The stunned and furious reaction from those in this industry who were looking forward to their re-opening date, only to be told that there isn’t one, is completely justified. There is no logic in allowing weddings with 300 seated people but not allowing a concert with the exact same number. I have read several viable solutions from people in the industry who have put forward very valid suggestions on how we can avoid the free-for-all of last summer, but the intransigence which is now being demonstrated seems to be out of proportion.

Even enforcement-wise it makes more sense to allow different events to take place this summer, because without anything happening, we will have the situation which we already have now: swarms of crowds flocking to the beaches which are arguably more difficult to control. They will be getting drunk and eating takeaways, playing music and (unfortunately) leaving their litter behind, but in even greater numbers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to disperse the crowds by opening up controlled events around the island, rather than funnelling them into the few activities which will be available to them (namely, going to restaurants or at the beach) thus creating the very situation of over-crowding which we are trying to avoid?

Above all, there is also the issue of livelihoods at stake here. I hope the health authorities will listen to the pleas of those whose income depends on the Arts, leisure and events industry because as much as they have tried to hang on and be creative while riding out this pandemic, many are now at a breaking point. Their hopes were even lifted by certain Government entities themselves (Festivals Malta and the Valletta Cultural Agency seem to have been kept equally in the dark) only to be bitterly dashed once again. If this industry is going to be met by a stone wall of constant “no’s” with absolutely no attempt to compromise, then it seems pretty pointless to keep boasting about herd immunity being reached early and how many vaccine doses have been administered and how we are leading the way in Europe (or is it the world?).

I have tried to comprehend the real reason behind this decision and my niggling hunch is that the problem lies in the fact that it is easier to say no to everyone rather than to say no only to certain completely uncontrollable activities like village feasts. We are back to being at school again when the whole class is punished because of one unruly student. Is it because the latter have a louder, more vocal, more powerful lobby and that certain MPs are patrons of various band clubs? Enquiring minds want to know.

Others have come up with the “election is coming in November” theory, which means that by keeping mass events banned until September, then it will be magically considered “safe” for people to go to mass meetings once the campaign gets underway. We deserve to be given the real reasons for this decision and not just the usual roundabout evasiveness which never really answers the question. Why September when schools are about to start? And why in Autumn when most events are likely to be indoors?

The truth is that there will never be the perfect time to test the waters for events – whether it is now or in 4 months, we have to take the first step (always cautiously) but it has to be taken.

Meanwhile, the elderly are still waiting

We’ve protected them, shielded them and vaccinated them first and this was all very commendable. However, as we are approaching herd immunity, the decision to lift the final restrictions from elderly homes should be taken as soon as possible. To be blunt, the residents at these homes do not have the luxury of time on their side. Tragically, some did not survive this pandemic and died alone. Others, confused and disoriented because of their mental health conditions cannot understand why everyone stopped visiting them. I hope that the next announcement we hear is that people can take their elderly parents out, even if for just a drive, or to take them home as they used to before, as long as everyone there is vaccinated. Their golden years should not be spent looking wistfully and forlornly out of windows and balconies, talking through perspex and masks, and seated two metres apart from their families, with no physical contact. I cannot imagine what the elderly must have felt, bereft of the human touch from their loved ones for so long.

This week, the headlines in the British press that people in the UK would be allowed to hug again was poignant and almost surreal in its implications, bringing into sharp focus once again just how much this pandemic has scarred us psychologically. I hope that one day soon we will see the same headline in Malta, especially when it comes to our elderly population.

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