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Researchers are experimenting with COVID-safe festivals in Amsterdam

A group of researchers and event organisers in the Netherlands have received approval from the Dutch government to start working and see whether it might be possible to hold COVID-safe festivals and other large live music events. If the study ends up in success, you might soon be able to get slaughtered with your mates while standing in the crowd listening to a band you don’t actually know. Heavenly, am I right?

Before you start getting too excited however, that remains a big ‘if’, and even if it happened, what those festivals would actually look like will stay a very open question. The research pilot festivals, which are organised by the group called Fieldlab, are set to be held between 13 and 14 March in Walibi, a theme park an hour outside of Amsterdam.

The group got a whopping 100,000 applications, out of which only 3,000 people will be able to buy tickets. On both days, attendees will be split into three smaller groups, each of which will follow a different set of rules so that the results can easily be compared. In one group, for example, attendees will have to keep a 1.5 metre distance, while another group won’t have any distance requirement. All visitors, however, are told to behave like they would pre-COVID—where do I sign up?

All jokes aside, attendees will have to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result taken 48 hours maximum before entering the festival and have their temperatures checked at the door, explained Maarten Schram, a member of Fieldlab, to Vice. Another 10 per cent of attendees will undergo on-site rapid tests. Attendees will then be asked to take another PCR test five days after attending and told to stay away from vulnerable groups until they receive their latest result.

“We had to create as safe a setting as possible to even be allowed to run this pilot in a lockdown situation, which is obviously quite unique,” Schram told Vice. “Beyond the other safety measures, we do air quality measures in the different tents. Very importantly, every guest is tagged with a personalised anonymised tracker so we can then analyse how people move in an event, how many people they interact with, and their behaviour. We combine this with anonymised video analysis as well.”

The researchers’ aim is to examine and test several paths for how events could happen in the future. If everything goes as planned, this trial could help event organisers figure out how to create safe events when a bigger audience is involved, just like in the good old days.

In the Netherlands, this isn’t the first attempt at studying whether large in-person events can be held safely during the pandemic. The pilot festivals are in fact just the most recent in a string of trials conducted by Fieldlab, including an indoor cabaret performance with 500 attendees and two football matches, each with 1,500 attendees. Both went successfully, the group said.

Meanwhile, other countries have tried similar experiments as well. In Spain, for example, the popular Primavera Sound festival held a trial event with 1,047 people last December in coordination with the University Hospital Germans Trias i Pujol. After the participants were tested eight days later, none of the members of the experimental group tested positive, while two members of the control group did.

In August, professor Michael Gekle, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Halle in central Germany, was part of a team of scientists that oversaw a 1,200 person indoor trial concert. They concluded that, with proper measures in place such as mask use, proper ventilation, a checkered seating pattern, and enough entrances and exits, such an event could take place with minimal risk of infection.

Other epidemiologists like Michael Edelstein—a professor and infectious diseases expert at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel—argue that even the measures being trialled in the Netherlands and Germany aren’t enough to safely hold music festivals. Experiments that may work well on paper can differ from real world application, he explained.

“There are many factors that will change from one event to another including the composition and behaviour of the audience (people behave differently when participating in a study, an effect known as the Hawthorne effect), airflows owing to the physical characteristics of each specific venue… we also know that most COVID-19 cases do not transmit the virus to other but a smaller number of ‘superspreaders’ infect many others,” Edelstein told Vice.

In other words, not to rain on your parade, but it is clear that more research needs to be done in the field. On top of that, government investment wouldn’t hurt. “We are planning in this direction. Yet as always it’s a matter of resources,” said Gekle. Glasto who?

Can a festival like Glastonbury ever really be ‘green’?

Summer has, nominally, arrived and with it comes festival season. The ongoing climate catastrophe is on many people’s minds when it comes to planning summer holidays—flying long distances is inherently unsustainable and stay-cations are increasingly encouraged. But how sustainable is the festival economy?

Tent cities emerge from remote British fields; mounds of rubbish and recycling are left over at the end of a hectic, debauched weekend. Diesel generators are often used to provide electricity; drinking water has to be transported to the festival site. Temporary toilets tend to be used instead of traditional plumbing, which often utilise chemicals and require complicated transportation and disposal methods. It’s estimated that the U.K. festival industry produces around 23,500 tonnes of waste annually, which equates to 2.8 kg per person per day. The total carbon emissions, excluding travel, for the industry comes to an estimated 19,778 tonnes.

Glastonbury, the largest and most famous of the British festivals, descends on Somerset this weekend, with around 135 thousand ticket-holders on top of several thousand staff and volunteers. In many ways, Glastonbury is setting a prime example of how to be sustainable. Since 2004, all food and drink has been sold in wood and paper packaging—they have now also banned single-use plastics.

This year Glastonbury is also prioritising clean energy, as stated on the festival’s website, “In 2010 Worthy Farm installed 1,500 square meters of solar panels on the roof of the cattle shed. The 1,316 roof-mounted solar panels makes this one of the largest privately owned solar photovoltaic systems in the country.” An entire area of the site, The Green Fields, which includes the 1,000-capacity Croissant Neuf stage, is run purely on solar and wind power. This year, single-use plastic drinks bottles will be unavailable at the festival. They also have over 1,200 “eco-friendly compost toilets” which yield “over 500 tonnes of horticultural compost every year.”

But the organisers can only do so much. Festival-goers are encouraged, for instance, to use biodegradable glitter, as conventional glitter is a micro-plastic pollutant, but there are no active restrictions. They are, politely, asked to use the toilets provided and dispose of cigarette butts responsibly, in an effort to reduce water pollution and land contamination—of course, these standards are difficult to enforce throughout the duration of the festival across the 900 acres site.

While people are encouraged to travel to Glastonbury by coach in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and traffic on the rural roads, the website does also note how to arrive by air. They include a link to Winding Lake (previously Fly Glastonbury), an enterprise that provides guests with chartered helicopter flights and hotel accommodation.

And what of the festival wardrobe? The rise of fast fashion is environmentally disastrous—cheap outfits bought in haste and worn once, twice, then discarded. Vintage clothing and charity shops should be encouraged, too, but festivals like Bestival, who encourage fancy dress and themed outfits, complicated matters.

Love Your Tent is an international campaign that encourages people to invest in high-quality tents and to reuse them year after year, instead of buying cheap ones and abandoning them at the end of a weekend. This is in no way enforced, though. And this typifies the problem with making festivals more sustainable: it requires investment, effort and compromise, both on the part of the festival and the consumers. Festivals are meant to be a time to let loose, to leave the outside world behind. People don’t want to be thinking about politics or about climate catastrophe—at the end of a heavy weekend, they just want to go home.

Disposable products make life easier while effective recycling schemes take effort and thought. A truly sustainable festival requires a lot of work, the sheer scale of Glastonbury actually helps the festival in implementing the policies outlined above while smaller, newer festivals aren’t able to do the same. As with many issues of sustainability, it comes down to cost—and raising costs affects accessibility. True sustainability means changing minds and changing habits, not merely implementing policy. Large scale change is needed within the industry and many festivals are committed to green policies in the next decade. The truth is, festivals can be green—as green as you want them to be.