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Stampede officials announced details of this year's event as preparations continue on the Stampede grounds in Calgary on July 6, 2021.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Calgary Stampede’s Nashville North will become the first major venue in Canada to require proof of vaccination, or a COVID-19 rapid test, before revellers are allowed to enter the site known for its live country music and large crowds.

What is normally a sweaty, boozy, 18-and-up venue with both a tent covering and canvas walls has also been replaced by a canopy with open-air sides.

As the Stampede makes final preparations for an opening at the end of this week, the 10-day rodeo, exhibition and midway is a critical public test of Alberta’s reopening plan. Even with the event’s reduced capacity and fewer vendors and attractions, some doctors have expressed concern about bringing thousands of people together on the grounds just east of Calgary’s downtown while worry about COVID-19 variants remains high.

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But Stampede vice-president Jim Laurendeau said the steps being taken to keep Nashville North safe “will provide a high level of assurance to our guests as they dance the night away.”

“We are looking at usual full capacity in Nashville North – and the reason we feel comfortable with that is because of our proof-of-vaccination and rapid-testing regimen to get into the venue,” he said at a news conference at the site on Tuesday.

For the new structure in place this year, capacity is 3,500. As the venue opens on Thursday, anyone wanting to enter the Nashville North grounds will be asked to show proof of at least one vaccine shot received at least two weeks prior, or must complete a quick onsite rapid test for COVID-19.

Stampede organizers say the fastest way to gain entry is a proof-of-vaccine slip, but rapid tests will be provided free of charge and will be administered at sites scattered around the Stampede grounds to keep queues in check. Mr. Laurendeau said the Stampede will be able to do the tests “at very high volumes.”

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He emphasized that this requirement applies to Nashville North only, and not the wider Stampede grounds.

As COVID-19 restrictions lift, a number of American venues have required their audiences to show proof of vaccination, but no Canadian entertainment or sports venue has made it a precondition for entrance on the scale Nashville North will. For instance, the Winnipeg Jets allowed a few hundred fully vaccinated health care workers to attend games at Bell MTS Place (now called Canada Life Centre) last month.

Manitobans who are fully vaccinated also have access to a provincial immunization card that allows them to travel within Canada without being subject to the province’s mandatory 14-day self-isolation period when they get back.

Past polls have suggested that Canadians are cool to the idea of vaccine passports for day-to-day activities. A Leger survey in May indicated almost three-quarters of Canadians want a vaccine passport, with eight in 10 supporting such a document being required for domestic or international travel. But only six in 10 said it would be okay for the government or business owners to require vaccine passports for activities such as taking in a concert or a hockey game.

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However, Jia Hu, a public-health physician advising the Stampede, said many organizations are beginning to contemplate some kind of proof-of-vaccination requirement.

Dr. Hu – who also co-founded 19 To Zero, a group launched at the University of Calgary that works to understand public perceptions around COVID-19 behaviours and vaccination – added that the Stampede is returning at a moment when both Calgary and Alberta are in a good spot. “Our case counts are very, very low. Our vaccination rates are higher than I would have dreamed possible six to eight months ago.”

Based on the premise of getting more than 70 per cent of eligible Albertans at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine – which has been surpassed – Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has pushed for an aggressive pandemic reopening plan that came into effect July 1. The reopening includes dropping almost all public-health orders, ending the provincial mask mandate and bringing back the Stampede. The event was called off last year – the first cancellation since its founding in 1912.

But Mr. Kenney has shown no enthusiasm for any type of vaccine passport. “There is no mandatory vaccines and no vaccine passports in Alberta, and nor will there be – period, full stop,” he said in May.

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On the Stampede grounds, Mr. Laurendeau said he expects the crowds to be largely from southern Alberta or Western Canada, and for many attendees to make a last-minute decision to go. On Tuesday, he said ticket sales have picked up in the past four to five days.

He said Stampede organizers recognize people will decide to attend or not based on their comfort level, but added the event will feature extra precautions this year, including capacity-monitoring, wider aisles on the grounds to allow for some distancing, and ensuring all guest-facing employees are still wearing masks.

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