It still feels unimaginable, but all going well, festivals are supposed to return to the UK this summer.
Despite hope that things will finally be “back to normal” by 21 June, in a coronavirus world, one thing we’ve all learned is that nothing is guaranteed.
Regular festivals without social distancing measures will only be able to take place if the government’s planned test events and relaxation of guidelines go to plan.
So, are festival organisers simply hugely optimistic or stark-raving bonkers?
Whatever the outcome, planning for this year’s festival season is well underway, and events have had to make some very big decisions in order to make things as safe as possible. That means things are inevitably going to look and feel rather different this year...
The ubiquitous big top tents will probably be a thing of the past
In the interest of keeping people in aerated spaces, enclosed tents at festivals are likely to be avoided at most major events. Boomtown festival, which hosts around 66,000 partygoers every August, told HuffPost UK they’d be avoiding them.
“We no longer have big tops,” organiser Anna Wade told us. “We thought, what can we do to make sure things are more Covid-free? Getting rid of large tented big top spaces where they have quite large capacity felt like a good, solid step so you’re not having hundreds of people in a not easily ventilated space.”
Greg Wells, co-founder of the new Bigfoot festival, is going a step further, advising they’ll have social distancing within tents, as their festival takes place during the late stages of restrictions on 18 June – just days before most measures are due to lift on 21 June.
“In the tents we’re still doing a rule of six, nice benches out, well spaced,” he tells us. “We’ll keep the sides of those open with circulation, and all music we’ll keep outdoors.” Restrictions in June mean festivals can host up to a maximum of 4,000 people, potentially making it easier to accommodate social distancing.
Despite the virus, festivals will do their best to give punters some escapism
Many festivals have themes, and this year they’ll attempt to help people feel far removed from the monotony of lockdown living.
“Last year the theme of our show was relating to a virus that had mutated,” says Anna from Boomtown, noticing the irony. “There were certain heavier undertones to it which we identified isn’t what people need when they’re trying to escape what we’ve been through.
“When we relaunched the festival in October we made our story about going back to the root of what festivals are about, and the reason they’re so important in society. If we are going ahead this year, we wanted the storyline to be the experience itself, so it’s all framed around that jubilation we all feel when we’re able to reconnect with friends and family and loved ones.”
Nozstock festival’s Ella Nozworthy feels the same. “We changed our theme as well – our theme was Into The Great Unknown, and we’ve changed that, because that just felt a bit like, actually we’ve been living that for the past few years.
“I think if we were picking that theme now it wouldn’t really feel appropriate,” she adds. A new theme has yet to be announced.
“Festivals are one of the few places where the community comes together on such a scale in a positive environment, I think those things are increasingly important,” adds Greg from Bigfoot.
“That has only been exacerbated for a year and a half, so we’re desperate to bring people together to think about food, drink, breaking bread, conviviality, sharing stories, seeing each other for the first time.
“I think what people are really looking forward to is being outside with their pals, having a drink, listening to some music. It’s the purpose of life – it’s the fun stuff, that’s what we want to get back to.”
Ella sums up how challenging it is getting the tone right: “People have had a horrible time and I don’t think you can gloss over that. I think they come to forget it and have fun but equally you’re not going to just put aside the time that they’ve had.”
That said, festivals won’t be a complete escape from the pandemic
Punters should expect a variety of Covid compliances when they get on site. Signage about respecting distancing in queues, as well as perspex screens, staff tests, longer changeovers between bands and markings and signs at stages could all be possibilities.
“The things we’re looking at that we have control over are things like additional hygiene measures, so having cold showers in every campsite which we’ve never usually had, contact payment systems across the whole site, additional sanitation measures, lateral flow testing, vaccine passports, that’s on my radar,” says Anna from Boomtown.
“We’re putting perspex screens up around site, and we’ve got people doing tests on staff regularly,” adds Ella from the Nozstock festival. While she says the festival, which takes place in July, will “be encouraging social distancing where we can,” she’s also realistic when she says festivals like hers cannot run with full distancing measures.
“At headline sets for example people aren’t going to do it, as much as we might encourage them to. We could even put stamps on the floor, I just don’t believe people are going to want to do it because they want to get up close and they want to be in the atmosphere and that’s part of the wonder of being at a music event,” she says.
Additional signage is also expected to remind people to stay vigilant. “Signs will say ‘remember hands, face, space,’ but we’ll paint it, it won’t be printed pictures, it’ll be hand-painted in bright colours with that Nozstock feel about it,” says Ella. “Yes it’s a little bit different, but you’ll still feel like you’ve come to forget your troubles for the weekend.”
Expect more relaxation and chill out zones
At big festivals like Boomtown, where the megawatt crowds are part of the experience, this year it’s essential to create zones where people who may feel overwhelmed can go to take a break, says Anna from the festival.
“We’re going to have campsite hubs, with talks and acoustic music and spoken word, nice cafes and much more relaxed experience,” she says. “The purpose of that... Covid is a huge part of it because it means there’s a nice space for people to step away from the hustle and bustle.”
Bigfoot’s Greg has a similar plan for making the camping experience feel less hectic. “On the campsite, we might mark out different pitches, just making sure that we’ve got ample space for distancing,” he adds.
It might be the end of the grim festival toilet situation
Remember hovering above a dirty portaloo seat at two in the morning, friends waiting outside as you make sure, at all costs, not to let any part of your body touch the seat?
Well, you’ll probably still decide to do that – festivals are festivals after all – but the encouraging news is many are ordering more toilets, and more cleaning, to help with hygiene.
“There’s shipping containers of hand san,” says Greg from Bigfoot. “All of the ratios on hand sanitising, toilets, clean down procedures – all of that you’re multiplying by a lot.”
Ella from Nozstock also confirms they’ve ordered loads more toilets than usual. “We’ve already ordered 40% more than we would ordinarily have for the same capacity, and we’ve asked the toilet company to do more cleaning than they would normally do,” she adds. Phew.
If festivals can’t happen at all, organisers may end up cancelling and running a string of smaller, socially distant events
Non-socially-distant events are due to get the go-ahead on 14 June, and they will be able to take place from 21 June provided that lockdown lifting goes to plan. However, if there is a setback, such as a new strain of the virus, that timeline may be delayed and festivals may need to cancel.
In the case of socially-distanced events being the only way forward, Ella from Nozstock has a plan. “We will pivot to a different event but I don’t think it’s really comparable to a normal Nozstock,” she says. “We’d be looking at a series of smaller events over the weekends in August, for example.
“We’ve got to be aware that the dates given are the best case scenario, but equally things are moving well and with the right measures in place there’s no reason why it can’t go ahead in a safe and fun way but still have enough of the festival that people feel that they’re at Nozstock.”
Ella says running a string of smaller events has more risk to it than one traditional event. “There’s more events to try and sell, more weekends of [potentially bad] weather, but it’s what we’re considering _ there’s very few businesses out there that can go two years in a row without any income,” she says.
Anna from Boomtown also says contingency plans are being drawn up. “We are starting to look at things in the background,” she says. “Our priority is the big challenge of how we can put this event on, but if that’s not possible we’ll look to see what we might be able to put on because obviously this summer will be incredible for everybody.”
Of course, as the pandemic has proved, anything can happen
“If festivals can’t go ahead this summer then the landscape next year is going to look very very different and there’s a lot that won’t be able to come back from it,” warns Ella of the damage caused to the industry if a second festival season is cancelled.
A huge demand for festivals, demonstrated by sellout events this year, means a new bout of festivals may crop up to swoop in and take punters’ cash from the beleaguered ones, believes Ella. “I think especially if things go badly again this summer, say we have another say where there’s no festivals, the capacity for next year will be so intense, especially after seeing ticket sales for this year.”
Ultimately, anything can happen, as Anna reminds us: “There are no categorical black and white situations at the moment,” she says.
Bigfoot takes place 18 - 20 June, Nozstock 22 - 25 July, Boomtown 11-15 August.