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Netherlands seeks a way to party in pandemic

March 22, 2021

Silence has reigned in concert venues and clubs for the past year, but they could soon start to fill back up. The Dutch events sector has teamed up with researchers to make large gatherings safe despite the coronavirus.

A large crowd enjoys music at the Back to Life Festival in Biddinghuizen
Packed crowds, no face masks — will this be possible for everyone once again soon?Image: Lucia Schulten/DW

Dutch look for a way to party in a pandemic

It's a music festival much like any other. More than a thousand people are packed together, dancing to thumping beats and chugging beer. They aren't keeping their distance, not wearing masks. It's the way it used to be, before the pandemic. The event took place on Saturday, in the small town of Biddinghuizen in the Netherlands — with government approval.

The Back to Live festival was a trial run. Researchers want to find out if and how large-scale events can take place despite the pandemic. In Biddinghuizen, revelers had their temperatures taken at the entrance to the festival grounds and had to show not just a ticket but also a negative PCR test result. They all got a sensor to wear around their necks tracking their movements, and then the fun could begin.

Once inside, many people fell joyfully into each others' arms. Some erupted into cheers; others broke into song. The mood on this Saturday morning in mid-March was euphoric.

DJ Reinier Zonneveld
DJ Reinier Zonneveld was excited to be back behind the decksImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

Elated, Nienke and Lara headed to one of the stages. "We are so happy to finally be here," Lara said. It's been a year since either of them were at an event like this. Both 22, they've always been keen festivalgoers and were thrilled to secure two of the coveted tickets for Back to Live.

DJ Reinier Zonneveld was equally excited. He hasn't been behind the decks for a long time.

"It is already amazing that I am asked to play. I really can't wait," he said. @I really couldn't believe it when they asked me to do it, like is it really going to happen?"

Music industry on life support

Pilot party projects

The festival is the seventh so-called Fieldlab event, experiments co-organized by the Dutch government and the country's events sector. The aim is to see how concerts, theater performances, sports events and conferences can be made safe during the pandemic, said program manager Pieter Lubberts.

At a dance party held two weeks ago at a closed location, he said, participants were divided into six groups, each with its own rules. Those in one group had to wear masks; those in another were allowed to move around freely. Researchers observed their behavior and noted the differences in the group dynamics, then compared the findings with the other events.

Researcher Andreas Voss outside the Back to Live Festival in Biddinghuizen
Researcher Andreas Voss admitted to feeling a little nervousImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

In Biddinghuizen the festivalgoers had to wear face masks and sensors keeping track of whom they had contact with, for how long and at what distance. It didn't take long, however, for many of the participants to take their masks off. And, this time, they weren't divided into bubbles.

"All 1,500 participants theoretically could have contact with each other. But what we see in other types of events is that it is usually a small group and they stay within that small group," said Andreas Voss, professor of infection control at Radboud University in Nijmegen and a part of the research project. He admitted he was feeling a little more nervous than during the previous experiments.

"Everybody has a PCR test, a coronavirus test, 48 hours upfront, and only with a negative result you can enter the festival. That is the main measure we have," Lubberts said.

Event participants are tested five days after each event, and so far, the results from the first six events have been encouraging. "Out of more than 6,000 people who attended these events so far, we only found five who might have been infected during or around the time of the events," Voss said.

But the findings still have to evaluated by the Dutch authorities. "It is too early to have the real results already, but the first results we see are quite positive," Lubberts said.

Partying in the name of science

The festival didn't look much like a scientific experiment, with music lovers Tessa and Suban clambering up a pillar overlooking the crowd. Neither of them are wore masks, nor did most people. Suban wasn't worried. "We were all tested before, so everyone here is negative, so that's reassuring," she said.

Voss expected as much. The festivalgoers are behaving much the same way as participants at the previous Fieldlab events. "During the party they will be very much less careful," he said. "They will take off their mask, they probably had some drinks, and they will party like they used to."

Today, they're allowed to. As Voss said, the compulsory testing means that "the chance of anyone infected is extremely low."

Two women dance in a crowd without face masks, holding drinks
Scene from a different time: Festivalgoers were able to party as they did before he pandemicImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

Twenty-five-year-old Wesley contracted COVID-19 in January, along with a number of his friends. He hopes that things normalize quickly, but he's not too optimistic — and he said the situation was taking its toll on his generation.

"Most people around 20 really miss a time to explore and to be young," he said.

But Lubberts is upbeat. "We think that summer festivals will be happening in the Netherlands in the upcoming months — with what capacity and how many people together is the big question," he said. He's also hopeful that other types of events such as football matches and concerts will be held soon.

But it's politicians who will have the final say. The researchers have done their part. And so have Wesley, Nienke, Lara, Tessa and Suban.

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent