To hear the Premier tell it, Alberta is wide open. Public-health restrictions are no more. Life is back – or, at the very least, getting back – to normal.
But while Jason Kenney’s government ended the rules on July 1 that constricted economic and social activity over the past 16 months, pandemic protocols will continue throughout the summer. In Alberta, festivals, concerts and other events may be legally free to operate as they normally would, but scores of organizers are sticking with guidelines designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The lingering rules are a result of practicality, promises and precaution. Major events take months of planning, and the blueprints for summer events were drawn up prior to the end of restrictions. Organizers attracted volunteers and event-goers with the understanding restrictions would be in place because, at the time, that was the expectation. And some want to play it safe, both to protect people’s health and provide certainty in case COVID-19 once again escalates.
The Calgary Folk Music Festival returns – sort of – next week. The organization temporarily rebranded Folk Fest as Summer Serenades, capping daily attendance at 2,500, roughly 20 per cent of its normal audience. Seating on Prince’s Island Park is organized into zones for contact tracing, and clusters of patrons must stick to their designated plots, which will be roughly two metres by 2.5 metres, spaced two metres apart. Masks are mandatory in shared spaces such as lines for portable toilets.
“This is a small step back to recovery,” said Sara Leishman, the organization’s executive director. “This isn’t a cannonball into the deep end. We’re just wading into the waters.”
The protocols were designed prior to restrictions lifting, with guidance from Alberta health officials. The festival is reluctant to nix them now because volunteers, and some concert-goers, signed up expecting Folk Fest to proceed with guardrails.
“Switching back to business as usual would be us walking back on that social contract,” Ms. Leishman said.
That sentiment is echoed by Chris Schoengut, a vice-president at Trixstar Productions, which is putting on the Together Again Outdoor Concert Series at the Edmonton Exhibition Lands later this summer. It took more than a year to plan, meaning COVID-19 protocols were built into the design. Patrons attending comedy shows and concerts will reserve tables, spaced apart, of up to six people, and order food and drinks using their phones.
“When we sold tickets to this, off the bat we were selling a certain experience and a certain safety aspect,” Mr. Schoengut said. “We’re sticking to our guns here on the safety aspect of things.”
It also provides a degree of certainty for the business should COVID-19 flare up again in Alberta.
“If something does come back up, with restrictions coming back into place, our hope would be that we could still produce things safely at a less-than-25-per-cent capacity of the venue,” he said.
Outfits such as Trixstar and Folk Fest are making adjustments. Capacity is limited and seating is assigned at Together Again, but if patrons want to dance to Our Lady Peace near their table, they can have at it, Mr. Schoengut said as an example.
Alberta lifted its restrictions in time to allow the Calgary Stampede to return unleashed. But even the Stampede, which continues through this weekend, is taking extra precautions. Two days prior to the start of the event, organizers announced that people wanting to party in Nashville North must show proof of vaccination or test negative for COVID-19 at the door.
The Stampede is not releasing daily attendance numbers this year, a sharp break from its ritual bragging. However, the festival is offering deals to lure people to the gates, suggesting lagging overall attendance. People who graduated from high school or a postsecondary institution in 2020 and 2021, along with three guests, can attend the Stampede grounds for free over the final five days, for example.
Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has plummeted in Alberta. Roughly 74 per cent of eligible people over 12 have received at least one dose, the second-lowest rate in Canada. Only Saskatchewan has weaker uptake. Alberta has about one million doses available right now, and only 57 per cent of people in the province have received two shots.
The Freewill Shakespeare Festival in Edmonton usually puts on shows for hundreds of people at a time. This year, it will stage plays at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, dropping attendance to about 60 people from about 1,000, according to David Horak, the organization’s artistic director. Casts have been cut from about 15 people to as few as three. Freewill’s audience is perhaps more cautious and skews older than the rest of Alberta, he said.
“I want our audience to feel safe coming back,” Mr. Horak said. “Because it is new.”
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