21 April 2021

COVID regime sounds a sour note for music festivals

| Ian Bushnell
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Photograph of choir performing at CIMF

How it was in 2018: the Canberra International Music Festival starting on 30 April won’t be staged like this. Photo: File.

Canberra music festival organisers are chafing at the ACT’s continuing COVID-19 limits on live performances and the uncertainty they face trying to plan and stage events.

Canberra International Music Festival general manager Angela Hannan said there is not a level playing field in the ACT, with shopping centres, and now football stadiums and Canberra Theatre being at 100 per cent capacity with scant regard to social distancing while live music venues can be at 75 per cent only if they apply for an exemption.

But she said exemptions always create uncertainty because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and applying can be time-consuming and labour intensive.

The festival had also based its business model on staging double performances to overcome the audience restrictions, and any changes now would be insignificant.

Ms Hannan said the guidelines are constantly changing, and the interpretation of them is fluid at the best of times, as well as being handled by different agencies.

Her festival’s COVID-safe plan, based on what the rules were six months ago, has been approved, but earlier in the month, Venues ACT told her the Fitter’s Workshop could not be used as a venue despite clearance from Access Canberra.

READ ALSO Time for ACT Housing to think family first

“It was very concerning because it was two weeks before the festival, and they were going to pull the plug because of a missed communication,” she said.

“Clearly, things are evolving quickly for them, but they have to understand that whatever advice they give to small organisations, it can make or break us.”

For the National Folk Festival, a much bigger event with a long lead time involving thousands of visitors and multi-day activities, the uncertainty is paralysing and could result in a third festival being cancelled come October if the current COVID-19 regime does not change.

Outgoing NFF general manager Helen Roben, who conceived and ran the successful Good Folk Festival in Queanbeyan at Easter, said it is difficult to get feedback from ACT Health on the potential of restrictions being eased and any sort of timeline as to when that might happen.

Ms Roben said there is too much focus on restrictions.

“Let’s have a conversation not about what we can’t do but what we can do,” she said.

The National Folk Festival

The National Folk Festival in 2019. Under the present rules, it can’t be staged as before. Photo: File.

It would be more reassuring if there was a level of clarity about hitting certain milestones and requirements to ensure that organisers could run a festival in the middle of COVID-19 that would be supported by the Chief Health Officer and ACT Health, she said.

“These events take time to plan; they’re not something that can be pulled together in a matter of two or three months,” Ms Roben said.

She said that at the moment, the NFF could not deliver a festival as usual, with camping, multiple-day events, the same business each day and interactive activities.

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It is important for the Folk Festival, which has already been cancelled twice, to continue planning but not incur costs they could not recover if there was no event, she said.

She urged a faster vaccine rollout to give the Australian population, and social and economic activity like the Folk Festival, the protection they require.

The next milestone for the festival comes in June when performer applications are issued.

With international borders remaining closed, next year’s festival is likely to be an all-Australian affair unless overseas artists organise their own travel and quarantine.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the Office of the Chief Health Officer would welcome an approach by the National Folk Festival and the Canberra International Music Festival to discuss potential exemptions for their events.

But she said the ACT would continue to take a cautious and considered approach to easing restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which were consistent with National Cabinet principles also largely consistent with the majority of other jurisdictions, including NSW.

“Our experience and that of other countries throughout the pandemic is that the situation is constantly evolving and can change quickly,” she said.

“It would therefore be irresponsible of the ACT Government to indicate to any event organiser that we provide certainty for events that are still some months away.

“We recognise how frustrating and difficult this is for event organisers. However, the Office of the Chief Health Officer has consistently worked with businesses, venues and event organisers to provide the best possible advice in the circumstances. More than 250 events have been approved for an exemption so far in 2021.”

The only venues currently permitted to have 100 per cent capacity are those with ticketed events and fixed, front-facing tiered seating, and where the Chief Health Officer has approved the venue’s COVID Safety Plan.

The government has announced that Floriade will return to Commonwealth Park this year but has not said what form it will take.

There are no current cases of COVID-19 in the ACT and, as of today, 176 across the nation, mostly overseas acquired.

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