The ACT’s next major festival, Summernats 34, is planning for a much-reduced and more dispersed event across Exhibition Park to cope with COVID-19 restrictions.
Summernats owner Andy Lopez says the annual celebration of the motor vehicle in January that draws thousands of visitors to Canberra and brings in millions of tourism dollars is still officially on, with organisers in touch with ACT agencies about how to stage a COVID-safe event.
The ACT Government says an events protocol is in train to help the ACT’s anxious organisers plan their events in the current COVID-19 environment.
Mr Lopez says that while it is a very fluid and unpredictable situation, planning was proceeding under the current set of restrictions operating in the ACT and he is keen to stress that Summernats takes the pandemic seriously.
”We may look like a crazy wild car event, and we are, but it’s underpinned by really solid event management and now it will be underpinned by really solid COVID-safe management principles,” he said.
Mr Lopez says he is looking at significant crowd reductions if needed.
Just how many that will be is still to be worked out with EPIC, but Mr Lopez says the calculation won’t be based simply on the one person per four square metres rule due to the size of the venue and nature of the event.
”We’re very different to a music festival because we have multiple program offerings at the same time and a large site that we are able to disperse crowds to,” Mr Lopez said.
”So we’ll look at what is the space in the venue and what we can effectively manage inside those spaces that isn’t unrealistic. So not to shoot for the high numbers but shoot for the numbers that are manageable and safe.”
Normally 100,000 people pour through the site over four days, peaking on Friday and Saturday but one strategy is to adjust the program to spread the crowd out over the course of the event.
Entry to events such as the burn-outs that attract a grandstand crowd will be restricted according to the health advice, the same as being followed at Canberra Stadium for football games.
Mr Lopez says the event will adhere to whatever the border situation is at the time but he is hoping that by January the borders will be more stable and less volatile than at present.
”The overarching premise is the people who will be allowed to come to the event at the time are the people who are not restricted by border closures or by internal hot spots,” he said.
Tickets and packages are being sold for the event but with a full refund guarantee if purchasers are unable to attend because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Mr Lopez was speaking from Alice Springs where he is organising the Red Centre Nats with the NT Government, to be staged over the Fathers’ Day weekend in September.
He says this will be a dry run for staging a COVID-safe Summernats.
After being in contact with Visit Canberra, Events ACT, and EPIC, Mr Lopez believes there is an appetite for a safe and successful Summernats.
But the event still has to be financially viable and the number crunching for that is complex, Mr Lopez says.
”We’ve set a number that we need to make in order to be viable for hopefully a better future in 2022. If we can get that number or close to it then we’ll be proceeding,” he said.
The clock is counting down to lock in an event such as this but with the situation changing by the week, Mr Lopez won’t name a deadline.
”We’re taking it week by week,” he said. ”Our first goal is to deliver a plan under current restrictions that government will be comfortable with. We’re hoping to deliver that plan in the next 10 days and get feedback. It could be a different conversation in four weeks time.”
A spokesperson for the ACT Government said Summernats organisers had a Venue Hire Agreement with EPIC from 2020 to 2023, and any delay or postponement of the event, including cancellation fees, would be managed through the Venue Hire Agreement which is commercial in confidence.
The spokesperson said the Chief Health Officer was mindful that organisers of several annual events, including Summernats, were keen to progress planning.
The Office of the Chief Health Officer and relevant agencies were expected to soon finalise development of a protocol to support organisations in planning for events that will take account of the best available public health advice, and use a risk-based approach.
Event organisers will then be able to assess whether or how their event can proceed in light of the protocols and the current Public Health Directions. Certain aspects of public events may be restricted under Public Health Directions, including the number of people in attendance.
”As we continue to monitor the evolving situations in Victoria, NSW and Queensland and the challenges they are facing, it is likely that some level of restrictions will be needed in the ACT and these will be the new normal, at least for some time,” the spokesperson said.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said: “We will continue to listen to the public health advice, as we have done throughout the pandemic.”
Events to follow Summernats at EPIC include the Canberra Show and the National Folk Festival, which did not go ahead last Easter due to the pandemic.