With the Omicron variant recently popping up in a Christchurch MIQ facility and many New Year’s festivals around the country postponed or cancelled, Rhythm and Alps is forging ahead

The shift from the alert level system to the traffic light framework may have given the entertainment industry the chance to get off the ground just in time for festival season.

Life at Orange means large public gatherings can go ahead, provided attendees are fully vaccinated. For Alex Turnbull, the founder of Otago festival Rhythm and Alps, this means this year they may be the only New Year’s festival in the country.

Other popular festivals such as Bay Dreams and sister festival Rhythm and Vines have been cancelled or postponed after uncertainties remained about the viability of running in red light regions with relatively low rates of vaccination such as Te Tairawhiti.

So in just over a week, Turnbull hopes to see over 10,000 people from around the country converge on the Cardrona Valley to count down the New Year with acts like Kora and L.A.B.

Turnbull said safety regulations had become a big part of planning the festival. The organisers hired a health and safety specialist to advise on how best to go ahead before last year’s outing.

But this year, everything’s ratcheted up a gear.

More likely risks of community transmission, disquiet around vaccine mandates and disdain for travelling Aucklanders may make things more complicated.

But as the first cab off the rank when it comes to post-lockdown live events, Turnbull said the team was taking things very seriously.

“We want to be seen to be doing the best job we can,” he said. “We can’t control the outcome of Covid, but we can put all the measures we can in place.”

For the festival, no vaccine pass, no entry. And requiring customers to link their tickets, ID and vaccine pass online means using somebody else’s pass won’t be easy.

If a positive case is recorded at the festival, Turnbull said they had worked out specific plans involving a physically distanced ambulance and contact tracing built into the wrist bands punters will use to purchase food and beverages.

But in the mosh pit where there may be four people per square metre, contact tracing may be a bit of a mammoth undertaking.

Fat Freddy’s Drop playing the festival last year. Photo: Ingmar Wein

Turnbull contends communicating how festivals and Covid regulations can co-exist and following the guidelines themselves is the key to making it work.

“We’re letting in double-vaccinated people,” he said. “So yes, Covid can spread between vaccinated people, but it’s less likely. So we know we have the safest measures in place for people to come on site, whether it’s to work or play.”

But even with these assurances, Turnbull acknowledged in this day and age, a lot can happen in the couple of weeks before the festival.

“I was saying last month that there are definitely going to be some more twists and turns,” he said. “Now Omicron has just rocked up into Christchurch. More things will change over the next two weeks.”

But he’s philosophical and optimistic about his chances.

“If the event can’t go ahead – so be it, that’s fine,” he said. “It would be disappointing and unfortunately we probably wouldn’t be able to postpone to another date.”

But as the festival is covered by the Government’s insurance fund for up to 90 percent of their costs, Rhythm and Alps is in a position where it can offer refunds and not have to eat the full cost.

That’s how it went down with the company’s winter festival Snowboxx, back in September.

But with a matter of weeks to go before people start flooding into Wānaka for the festival, Turnbull thinks it’s unlikely they would have to close the gates.

“There would have to be pretty high levels of community cases for it to stop us in the next two weeks,” he said.

Rhythm and Alps has resisted cancellation or postponement partly because they focused on a roster of Kiwi acts.

This meant it wasn’t at the whim of the border, but also allowed New Zealand’s own stable of musical talents to take centre stage.

“New Zealand bands are on fire right now,” Turnbull said.

And for Wānaka, a tourist town deprived of much of the traffic during its busy winter season this year, the estimated $10 million the festival brings into town may be crucial.

Turnbull, who is a Wānaka resident, has already noticed the influx of people since Auckland’s borders opened last Wednesday.

“There were no parking spaces in town today,” he said. “It’s already rocketed up and become much busier.”

While places outside of the greater north have expressed polarised views on Aucklanders taking trips out to the provinces – with their money ready to spend and hopefully not their viruses ready to spread – Turnbull said the main feeling in Wanaka is one of welcoming the previously locked-down.

“It’s probably the overwhelming majority that feel we should open it up,” he said. “All of the local businesses down here, every retail outlet or tourism centre has really struggled this year.”

But he said there’s also a minority worried about the ingress of the virus.

“There’s a smaller section with the sentiment of let’s not bring the Covid loogies down here,” he said. “But people do realise that it’s here, and it’s probably not going anywhere.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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