The new normal for attending a rock concert indoors lasts about two songs if last Friday’s Burt Block Party show is any indication.
That’s when the uneasiness about being inside a large room begins to fade and the realization that the more than 1,000 people you’re sharing the space with are as fully vaccinated as you takes hold.
It’s also the time when the roars from the crowd reached pre-pandemic levels, more than 17 months of pent-up emotions were released and old rock ‘n’ roll routines returned.
Band members urge the crowd to clap and cue fans to sing along to favourites. Northern Pikes’ fans holler the famous line "she ain’t pretty, she just looks that way" as loudly in 2021 as they likely did in 1990.
Empty spaces on the floor vanished during the Jim Cuddy Band’s set, proving you need rose-coloured glasses to believe COVID-19 social-distancing rules will be followed at rock events.
There was rock ‘n’ roll rebellion too. Two fans were welcomed on stage by 54-40 to join in, and by the end of the band’s set at the end of the night, hardly anyone in the crowd were wearing masks.
Masks were mandatory for attendees inside the Burt — they were going to sell beer, pop and snacks there for the outside show — except when eating and drinking, so the unmasked folks who were two-fisting $9 Bud Lights near the stage have an excuse.
Friday’s show was planned to be held outdoors in front of the Burt, using parking lots, parks and cordoned-off streets to create room for up to 4,000 people to rock out and meet friends not seen for months. Right on cue though, rainclouds that have been waiting to pour on outdoor music festivals in Winnipeg for the past two years finally found one, forcing True North Sports and Entertainment, the event’s promoter, to move Friday and Saturday’s shows inside the Burt.
Health officials and COVID-19 experts say outdoor activities are relatively safe, but have also said that places where people congregate — especially indoor spaces — increase the risk of the lethal coronavirus spreading to everyone attending.
So Friday and Saturday night shows were going to put Manitoba’s pandemic regulations, and COVID-19 vaccines, to the test.
Each ticketholder, vendor, band member and staff member at the event had to show proof of being fully vaccinated.
It’s easy to forget how much milling about takes place when going to a show or a sporting event.
There wasn’t long lineup to enter a Burt Block Party gate at Ellice Avenue and Smith Street, about a block from the Burt, but under a canopy, ticketholders were told to show photo ID and their Manitoba vaccination card to someone who scanned its QR code that verifies fully vaccinated status.
Tickets were checked too, and everyone had to go through metal detectors as well, and they remain as tedious, and as necessary, as before.
Everyone wore a mask, but this whole process will require a certain amount of faith from ticketholders and ticket-takers in the future.
For attendees, we must accept that those checking tickets, running metal detectors and the QR scanners are fully vaccinated. They check us, we can’t check them. We trust laws set in place by governments and rules made by venue operators.
Staff must accept that a ticketholder hasn’t somehow picked up COVID-19 since getting vaccinated, although the odds of that happening are low.
They won’t stay low forever in Manitoba, if the rising number of COVID-19 positive cases in Alberta is any indicator.
Alberta eased its pandemic restrictions, including removing its requirement to wear masks indoors, on July 1. On Aug. 20, it reported 749 new COVID-19 cases, although only 15 per cent of those were fully vaccinated. Virtually all COVID patients treated in Alberta hospitals were either unvaccinated or partly vaccinated.
Manitoba joined Alberta by lifting its mask mandate Aug. 7. While Manitoba has a greater acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines and of requests from businesses to wear masks while shopping, the numbers don’t lie.
The highly contagious delta variant is already in Manitoba, provincial health officials say, and Alberta’s experience shows there may be only a small window of opportunity for Manitobans to enjoy the arts or sporting events they love, especially when held indoors.
That window should remain open this weekend, when the Burt Block Party continues Friday and Saturday nights and the oft-delayed Unite 150 concert that takes place all day and evening at Shaw Park.
Whether that window remains open for the fall, when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Prairie Theatre Exchange or the city’s many small music venues return, remains a mystery.
We can only hope, because few in Winnipeg want to live without arts and entertainment for a third winter while learning to live with the virus.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.