Working towards a new ‘normal’
After just a few weeks the seemingly bland normality of the lockdown, bathed in warm sunlight and deep blue skies, languidly drifts along like a Ballardian dystopian novel.
Whilst Doctors, Nurses, Paramedics and Social Care Workers bravely and urgently aid those infected with the deadly and invisible Coronavirus, the rest of us are restricted to new codes of behaviour, forced to develop new ways of surviving economically and spiritually, and contemplating new protocols going forward for social interaction in the period after COVID-19.
Despite the fact that the main information source we have about the crisis is a media dominated by even-handedly presenting ill-informed bleach-dispensing salesmen, or reiterating unelected herd-apostles who have replaced absentee heads of government, there is the beginning of a consensus (formed over multiple video-conferences) as to what the new ‘normal’ environment for live entertainment could be after the lockdown is eased.
However, before any relaunch of the live experience, we must first get through the containment phase whereby national governments are primarily focussed on public health and sanitation and have banned in-person mass gatherings and unnecessary group assembly including concerts, festivals, meetings, and conferences.
The UK Government (belatedly) introduced (23rd March) three measures: requiring people to stay at home; the closure of businesses and venues; and the stopping of all gatherings of more than two people in public. The UK lockdown was for an initial three weeks and has been extended until (at least) 7th May with no official end likely as testing and tracing tools are still not widely available.
Our European neighbours moved quicker on both fronts and have also banned mass gatherings deep into the summer.
For example, earlier in March Denmark moved to ban gatherings of more than 10 people and closed its borders. Then (6th April) the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, confirmed that large public gatherings would remain banned until the end of August: https://politi.dk/en/coronavirus-in-denmark/extension-of-measures-during-the-covid19-outbreak-in-denmark.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (6th April) confirmed that public events of more than five people will remain banned until end of June: https://www.ft.com/content/d7025074-496e-4609-84c3-22c000cc41d6.
President Emmanuel Macron announced (13th April) that France would extend their lockdown until 11th May and that public events, venues, bars, cafes, museums and restaurants won’t re-open until at least until mid-July: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-13/macron-says-he-ll-extend-lockdown-in-france-until-may-11.
Then on 28th April the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an extended ban on sporting events and festivals until September: https://variety.com/2020/film/global/france-government-extends-festivals-ban-september-cannes-1234591792/.
The German Government (20th April) stated that since ‘events play a major role in infection dynamics, they remain prohibited at least until August 31, 2020’: https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/suche/bund-laender-corona-1744306.
The Irish Government (21st April) has also extended its ban on mass public gatherings until the end of August: https://www.gov.ie/en/news/3afa7d-government-statement-on-licensed-events/.
The Dutch Government (21st April) has extended its ban on events requiring a permit to 1st September 2020: https://www.government.nl/topics/coronavirus-covid-19/news/2020/04/21/measures-to-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-extended.
And the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed (23rd April) that social distancing or ‘gathering in groups, for example in pubs or at public events, is banned or restricted for some time to come’: https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/strategy-plan/2020/04/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making/documents/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making/govscot%3Adocument/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making.pdf with the Edinburgh Festivals in August already cancelled: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/apr/01/edinburghs-five-festivals-cancelled-due-to-coronavirus .
When should governments ease the containment lockdown?
Each country faces a challenging balancing act – economic security and public safety – but as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization chief has warned lifting lockdown measures too early could spark a ‘deadly resurgence’ in infections.
Additionally, the lifting of COVID-19 pandemic containment measures will not be easily co-ordinated as, for example across the EU and the UK and there are multiple healthcare administrations, with differing infection rates and inevitably different priorities as regards kickstarting their own coronavirus-battered economies.
Possibly the only common factor is that the prolonging of any lockdown will deepen the inevitable global recession, perhaps of record dimensions (‘Deep Global Recession in 2020 as Coronavirus Crisis Escalates’ – https://www.fitchratings.com/research/sovereigns/deep-global-recession-in-2020-as-coronavirus-crisis-escalates-02-04-2020 + ‘Coronavirus means a bad recession – at least – says JP Morgan boss’ – https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/06/coronavirus-means-a-bad-recession-at-least-says-jp-morgan-boss + ‘Eurozone to contract 11% in 2020, warns Morgan Stanley’ – https://www.ft.com/content/fc508cec-9b09-3bd6-9e8d-c315c3966770).
So, a (safe) economic relaunch is desired by all.
For the EU there are three main sets of criteria for assessing when to ease restrictions (A European roadmap to lifting coronavirus containment measures – https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/european-roadmap-lifting-coronavirus-containment-measures_en):
- Following a sustained reduction and stabilisation in the number of hospitalisations and/or new cases for an extended period
- A sufficient health system capacity in terms of an adequate number of staff, hospital beds, pharmaceutical products and stocks of PPE equipment
- Appropriate monitoring capacity, including large-scale testing to quickly detect and isolate infected individuals
The one thing that the EU is clear on is that concerts and festivals will be the last sector to have restrictions lifted (EU: Festivals, concerts to be last to reopen – https://www.iq-mag.net/2020/04/eu-festivals-concerts-to-be-last-to-reopen/), with steps towards normalisation taken on a gradual, targeted and localised basis before expanding territorially.
Further the EU recommends that a phased approach to internal transportation and external border controls should be maintained, enabling ongoing supervision and the swift redeployment of measures in case new infections occur.
Lastly, gatherings of people should be progressively permitted whilst maintaining social-distancing: schools and universities; commercial and retail activities; social dining – cafes & restaurants; and then larger scale public assembly i.e. events.
The U.S. Government’s ‘Gating Criteria’ (https://www.whitehouse.gov/openingamerica/) for a return to normalcy similarly has a three-phrase approach, based on the advice of public health experts: to assist states to reopen their economies; get people back to work, and continuing to protect lives. However, the federal guidelines are nonbinding and put decision-making in the hands of states and their governors.
The guidelines initially recommend a ban on non-essential travel, with strict physical distancing (six feet) between consumers whether at movie theatres or sport stadia, with public assembly of no more than groups of ten, increasing in the third-phase, to fifty attendees so long as there is no rebound in virus infections with an eventual ‘return of packed arenas for sporting events, large crowds and concerts.’
When will consumers re-embrace the live experience?
The Robert Peston political discussion programme on British television network ITV, revealed on Wednesday 22nd April (https://www.itv.com/hub/peston/2a4458a0142) the results of polling research undertaken by JLPartners (https://www.jlpartners.co.uk/polling-results) with 2,033 respondents.
The questions polled included: environments where to wear a mask; the desirability of a personal-identifying NHS App monitoring the spread of the virus; voluntary vaccination; restrictions of movement for older members of the population; the timing for any easing of the lockdown; and which sectors – schools, shops, workplaces, bars & restaurants – should be prioritised to re-open.
In the poll were several queries relating to a public return to pre-COVID-19 activities, including concerts.
The answers were not particularly positive for the live entertainment sector, indicating that currently the majority of consumers would be reticent about re-immersing within the live experience:
4% of those polled would return to live events immediately, or in a few days
8% would go back after a few weeks
21% would go back in a few months
22% would not go back until a vaccine is available
12% did not know
and, 33% did not attend concerts before the lockdown
(A revealing statistic is that 1/3rd of the respondents did not attend concerts before the virus – a reminder that the live music industry had previously failed to engage with the full spectrum of potential audiences.)
The ITV / JLPartners survey is obviously a snapshot at a time when everyone is extremely nervous regarding any future normalcy, especially whilst they are faced with more important life and death matters, but of those that attend concerts, approximately 1/3rd would wait a few months before returning, and another 1/3rd would not return until a vaccine was available.
Almost immediately Tom Kiehl the Acting-CEO of UK Music (the umbrella organisation which represents the UK’s music industry) responded to the Peston survey findings stating that more support was required for arenas, venues and festivals:
A Reuters / Ipsos opinion poll published on the 28th April (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-events/most-americans-to-avoid-sports-other-live-events-before-coronavirus-vaccine-reuters-ipsos-idUSKCN22A2AK), which surveyed 4,429 American adults from 15-21 April, and where the poll questions noted a vaccine might not be available for more than a year) also outlined its results:
17% would attend an event when they reopen
26% would wait until there was a vaccine available
Cinema, Concerts & Live Theatre
27% would go to a performance when venues reopen
32% would wait until there was a vaccine
Amusement & Theme Parks
20% would visit when facilities reopened
59% would wait until there was a vaccine
In total 55% of the respondents stated that events should not resume before a vaccine is available. That figure includes those who have attended such events in the past, which as Reuters noted is ‘an ominous sign for the sports and entertainment industries hoping to return to the spotlight after being shut down by the pandemic.’
Medical realities & economic considerations for events post-lockdown
Assuming the regulatory approval to reopen the live entertainment sector in a phased and controlled manner is granted, event organisers are then going to have to undertake detailed Risk Assessments for their businesses detailing measures required to protect consumers, staff and performers.
HR and Health & Safety teams will need to develop policies and procedures for workforce contact with colleagues, suppliers (staging, lighting, PA, crew, merchandising etc. as well as administrative consumables), touring artists and the public, and establish clear guidelines for regular SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing and identify retrospective-tracing measures to follow-up on any test results.
There are also other event administrative requirements which may include liaison with police, local licensing authorities, emergency services, technical carnets and personal health passport schemes, or the fulfilment of new event insurance criteria. (Given the paucity of insurance pay-out for event cancellation or business disruption within the live sector this will undoubtedly be an ongoing source of conflict – see the NTIA campaign against the no-pay-out insurance industry: https://www.ntia.co.uk/philip-kolvin-qc-to-challenge-insurance-claim-denial-by-hiscox/.)
With the current requirement to minimize non-essential travel, and with a number of countries operating 14-day quarantine restrictions for international travellers, touring by overseas acts may be logistically impractical and certainly too expensive for many, and so events going forward may need to focus on local / national acts and/or combine elements of virtual or live streaming of performances.
It is also likely that before the deployment of any vaccine, some form of social-distancing (two metres?) and masks for audience members travelling to/from the events will continue to be required for an extended period.
Once they arrive at the event these wider societal restrictions surely would not cease – unless the live industry is asking for an exception due to economic needs overriding medical advice?
Assuming social-distancing is then required at events there would be no personal contact permitted i.e. no hugging, handshakes or mosh-pits, with potentially barriers and metered queuing in all public foyer areas, toilet facilities and at entrances and exits.
How audiences would then be accommodated in seated venues within social-distancing guidelines is currently unclear. But architectural firm DLR Group have stated (‘Sports arenas could require ‘necessary renovations’ for social distancing, architect firm says’ – https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/26/coronavirus-social-distancing-could-require-necessary-renovations-to-sports-arenas.html) that in the short-term venues could limit seat sales leaving a safe perimeter to abide by social-distancing regulations, and in the mid-term seats could be permanently removed if necessary.
Seating distancing plan Source: DLR Group
However, this arrangement with alternate seats or rows left vacant (with ticketing service platforms already posting online demos of their new algorithm placing ticket buyers in best available socially-distanced seats) is unlikely to be financially feasible, or culturally desirable, for event organisers and venues.
The live performing arts (ballet, comedy, dance, music, opera, theatre) already operates on too-thin margins (or relies on donations, subsidy and incremental event revenues to offset costs), so distancing guidelines if applied to events would make a return to pre-Coronavirus business almost impossible for any medium to large-scale production, unless support is offered by governments: Tom Kiehl, UK Music Op-Ed: Why the UK government must help save our live industry – https://www.iq-mag.net/2020/04/why-uk-government-must-save-live-industry/.
An additional query relates to how would performances be staged with social-distancing between actors, musicians and performers?
Personal protective equipment may also need to be provided for all those members of staff with high interaction with the public or event production services e.g. event crew and management, concierge, box office staff and event security.
Mobile App tracing technologies are potentially irrelevant to events – aside from any privacy issues, as they are designed to monitor the spread of the virus rather than guarantee the mobile owner is free of illness – unless personal identification will be required and that corresponds to the mobile app avatar which is then refreshed at point-of-entry, and they also have a valid event ticket?
Immunity Tests also cannot be implemented at event entrances (for obvious hygiene, security and traffic congestion reasons), but there is a growing discussion relating to the utilisation of Thermometer Scans at entrance points – with a quick test, if pass then enter, if fail either wait a few minutes and retest, or refuse admission and/or refer to medical assistance – if any are readily available for events, surely many will still be needed at the medical frontline elsewhere, or recovering from recent exertions.
There is also a moral as well as logistical question relating to the needs of the live sector disrupting or distracting the emergency services, police, ambulance and event support paramedics from their core health focus.
Additionally, sanitation and regular disinfection of all common and (one-way) high-traffic venue areas would be required, with increased ventilation of the performance space, auditorium and foyer areas, and this will all need to be documented enabling transparency for 3rd Party Agencies and to reassure the public, with special regard to entrances, exits, bars, toilets, hospitality suites, seating etc.
Event signage, queue management and digital ticketing – will any other format now be culturally acceptable? – will all need to be recalibrated. Protective screens may need to be installed at contactless-only cash registers and box office counters with serving staff again provided with protective masks and gloves.
Similarly, any event F&B may have to utilise one-time use (disposable or recycled ?) drink cartons and/or individualised food portions / snacks i.e. no more buffet-style or open-access food displays. But anti-bacterial hand wash dispensers should be readily available.
In short, hygienic and well-operated venues may feel that they have disinfected the spirit of live out with these new protocols, but welcome to the new normal.
Lastly, the possibility of a resurgence in infections following relaxation of the containment measures would potentially lead to more aggressive lockdowns with tougher isolation measures then currently enforced. So, the live sector really does not want to get any of this wrong by rushing back too soon, or ill-prepared.
It is also noteworthy that both Microsoft (https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21211721/microsoft-events-build-2021-digital-only-coronavirus-plans) and Facebook (https://www.conference-news.co.uk/coronavirus-updates-news/zuckerberg-says-facebook-wont-run-large-physical-events-until-june-2021) have postponed all large in-person gatherings – fifty or more – until the summer of 2021. So, in-person keynotes from the tech industry or other international stars of culture and business may have to wait.
Without any clear guidance the live industries will have to work out much of this (and more) on an individual company basis as there is no industry-agreed lockdown exit plan, and then calculate how and when they might re-open, if at all.
We are just ending the first phase of the Coronavirus postponement cycle with live events, festivals and tournaments rescheduled or cancelled between March – June.
Now in the second phase events that were originally scheduled for July – September are also being impacted, and the industry expectation is that 2020 is already over for major international touring artists and events.
Going forward surely there can be no return to live events if there is any uncertainty with regards to the health and safety of artists, producers, venues and the public. Or will economic needs override?
The industry therefore needs to plan for the period post-lockdown with training and resources made available for the new operational environment.
But aside from that the sector also needs to educate and inform audiences and other event constituents what they are doing to protect them, for as noted by Rafael Behr (‘The lockdown in our minds will be the last restriction to be lifted’ – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/28/lockdown-restrictions-solidarity-coronavirus-social-distancing ) the legacy of the lockdown will take some time to be erased from our collective consciousness.