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Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 30, 2021

What the traffic light system means for live events this summer

Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

Whether they’re operating under red or orange, arts venues across the country are looking forward to loosened rules and larger audiences from Friday. But it won’t be all plain sailing, writes James Wenley.

After months of uncertainty, arts venues nationwide now know how life will look when the country moves into the Covid protection framework – aka the traffic light system – on December 3. While most of the country will be under the orange setting, 12 areas in the North Island, including Auckland, will be in red – meaning extra limits to how venues can operate. Wherever they’re based, a vaccine pass will be necessary for entry into almost all dance, theatre, music and other live arts experiences.

Local ticketing companies iTICKET and Eventfinda are even integrating the government’s My Vaccine Pass into their services, so you can pre-verify your vaccine status and jump the venue queue.

It’s not just audiences who are affected; many venues will require their staff to be vaccinated too. Auckland Pride was an early leader in announcing a vaccine mandate for all its events next year. BATS Theatre in Wellington has confirmed that it will use passes from December 3rd and that all onsite staff, creatives and audiences will need to be vaccinated as this is “safest way for us to bring artists and audiences together.”

With the delta outbreak cancelling and restricting arts events throughout the country over the past months, a highly vaccinated population has been seen as the greatest hope for live arts to get the green light to fully resume in 2022. But examples from overseas tell us that even with 90% double-vax targets, considerable challenges still lie ahead.

An empty Civic Theatre, Auckland. (Photo: Supplied)

Despite the release of the vaccine pass verification app, implementing the traffic light system in such a tight timeframe poses a challenge for venues, with detailed information for live events and other businesses only released last Friday. Staff will also need to be attentive to unintended barriers created by the passes, such as the risks to trans folks.

The introduction of passes brings New Zealand into line with many other arts sectors around the world. Mask wearing and proof of full vaccination is mandated for people attending shows on Broadway. In Munich, audiences must also provide a negative Covid test and wear medical grade masks, and venues can only admit 25% of their usual capacity. In Singapore, audiences are capped at a maximum of 50 (if there is no pre-event testing) or 1000 (with pre-event negative tests or proof of vaccination).

The good news for arts events in New Zealand is that under the green (limited community transmission) or orange (increasing community transmission) settings in the traffic light system, an unlimited number of people can attend an event if vaccine passes are used.

Most regions currently in alert level two are transitioning into orange. With no distancing rules or limits on attendees, orange (with passes) is clearly a better deal for live venue operators than level two, which mandated 1m seated distancing. Little Andromeda theatre in Christchurch expects to double its venue capacity under the traffic light system, “which means the performers will get paid more fairly… it’s going to make the show so much better for the audience, the performers and the theatre management.”

Importantly, events that don’t use vaccine passes are not able to operate at all under orange – no pass, no event.

Auckland and less vaccinated parts of the country are beginning with red. Red kicks in when the health system is facing an “unsustainable number of hospitalisations” or action is “needed to protect at-risk populations.” The red light not only represents a danger zone for our country’s health system, but also our arts and events sectors.

Under red, both indoor and outdoor events using passes are allowed, but only “up to 100 people based on 1m distancing, seated and separated”. This is a stricter threshold than the current level two settings, and many events will be unable to operate when we are in red.

Events under the traffic light system (indoor and outdoor)
Green Orange Red
With Vaccine Passes No limits No limits, face coverings encouraged. Up to 100 people + 1m distancing, face coverings encouraged.
Without Vaccine Passes  

Up to 100 people + 1m distancing + seated & separate, face coverings encouraged.

Cannot operate Cannot operate

Opening up Aotearoa using the traffic light system may mean shutting down many live events. Te Pūnaha Matatini modeller Shaun Hendy has warned that “we’re not going back to that kind of level one life that we’ve enjoyed for most of 2020 and 2021” and that many of us may spend half to three quarters of next year in the red light setting. “With delta you really can’t go back to normal without putting a lot of people at risk and really overwhelming your healthcare system,” he says.

And then there is the spectre of breakthrough cases. Whilst the science tells us that vaccination substantially reduces our risk of catching and passing on Covid, breakthrough cases are still possible in people who have been vaccinated or previously infected.

After opening on Broadway after an 18+ month closure, Disney’s stage musical Aladdin closed again the very next night when breakthrough infections were found among vaccinated company members. With guidance from Disney’s own resident epidemiologist, the production eventually paused for two weeks before reopening. Shows in London also faced issues with breakthrough cases and isolation requirements which impacted the West End’s reopening earlier this year.

The traffic light system may not yet be the breakthrough the live arts sector needs to resume performances with confidence in 2022. As Creative New Zealand’s chief executive Stephen Wainwright acknowledges, “anything other than alert level one is tough for all whose livelihoods depend on the live arts”.

The arts sector in general is not calling for looser restrictions. Aotearoa has been one of the rare countries in the world that has had fewer deaths than average since Covid emerged. If we need to be in red light (or go to a localised lockdown), the arts community recognises it is necessary to protect its whānau. But the arts will continue to need help to get through.

Following prodding from Act and National, the government has put in place an insurance scheme that covers most of the cancellation costs for events for 5000+ attendees if affected by Covid restrictions – good news for the summer music festivals, especially those now potentially spending New Years in red. Stuart Nash, minister for small business, explained that events “incur significant costs in advance. A quick shift in public health measures could see an event cancelled with no opportunity to recoup costs or generate revenue.”

Arts workers know this all too well – they’ve been busy postponing and unproducing events for the past two years. Seventy-three percent of arts practitioners who responded to a recent survey said they’d had paid work cancelled by delta, and only 3% said they currently had more than enough work to get by. Most can’t afford the mental and financial strain of cancellations happening for a third year. There’s a clear need for an insurance scheme that covers smaller scale arts events. It doesn’t matter if the event is for an audience of 200, 2000, or 20,000 – Covid-cancelled shows impact livelihoods

Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage has allocated $22.5 million to give confidence to the arts sector to plan and host events over the next six to eight months, though details of how this money will be spent are still under wraps. That money could really come in handy if we do need to spend most of 2022 in red to protect our people and health system, as Hendy cautions.

With this in mind, funders, festivals and arts leadership organisations could commission and subsidise independent artists to make work for the red light setting – next year let’s make an abundance of intimate arts events that safely caters for under 100 people at a time.

We can hope for green, but live arts need to prepare for red.

This is an edited excerpt from a post that originally appeared on the blog Theatre Scenes.

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