When can we go to big concerts again?

Large outdoor festivals and sweaty concerts have been shuttered completely in the Ottawa region since March 2020, but some believe they could make a comeback as early as late summer.

Outdoor concerts could come back late summer, depending on how badly we want it

British singer Seal performs at the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa on July 8, 2012. The Ottawa Bluesfest is ranked by Billboard Magazine as one of the most successful music events in North America but it's one of several events that's been shuttered in the last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Large outdoor festivals and sweaty concerts have been shuttered completely in the Ottawa region for the last year — but some say they could make a comeback as early as late summer.

Doug Manuel, a senior scientist with The Ottawa Hospital, said as the vaccine rollout picks up, public health officials have to weigh two things: the risk of transmission versus how much the community values that setting. 

"So schools are a little bit crowded, but we value that a lot," he said, giving an example. 

Manuel posed the question: how would we value having 1,600 people back at the National Arts Centre for an in-person musical, versus being able to have weddings or sending students back to school?

"I think this is a bit of the math," he said. "So how quickly are we going to get back to large gatherings? If we value that a lot, we could bring that back ahead of, say, restaurants or schools."

Manuel said large gatherings indoors are still "fairly risky," but outdoor gatherings and concerts could potentially reopen late summer — depending on "how much we want to value that, as opposed to other settings," he added. 

CityFolk 2021, Bluesfest 2022 plans underway

Joe Reilly, spokesperson for Ottawa's CityFolk and RBC Bluesfest music festivals, says he hopes organizers can hold some form of concerts by this autumn. Those would have public health precautions in place, like physical distancing and masks.

"People are kind of hopeful that maybe if vaccines are rolled out well by summer months, that by the autumn we may be looking at being able to do some kind of concert presentations," said Reilly.

"What stage of autumn, I don't know yet. And then hopefully by 2022, we're looking at a return to some kind of normalcy."

The Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne performs at a previous Ottawa Bluesfest. Spokesperson Joe Reilly says plans for this September's CityFolk and next year's Bluesfest are well underway. (Patrick Doyle/Ottawa Bluesfest/CP)

He said Bluesfest has already lined up California-based rock band Rage Against the Machine to headline the 2022 show. Organizers are already in discussions with other artists about touring in 2022, he added.

CityFolk is typically held in September, and Reilly said there's still some hope the event may be able to go forward. 

"Work is continuing on that. But we'll see where the numbers are going," he said.

    Reilly noted how plans were underway earlier this March to — with the aid of rapid COVID-19 testing — bring a 100-person, physically distanced outdoor concert to Ottawa's Lansdowne.

    That concert was ultimately postponed as the city headed into the red zone. He said industry members are actively thinking about how to safely bring concerts back, with the help of public health officials.

    Reilly has been involved in Ottawa's music scene for four decades and is also a music fan who's gone to shows since he was 13 years old.

    He says the cancellations have been "heartbreaking."

    "It's been a really big hole in my life in many ways to not have shows to go to," he said.

    Ottawa Public Health said it would follow federal and provincial guidance on when to allow large outdoor gatherings again. The province's Ministry of Health did not directly answer CBC's question on timelines for large gatherings.

    What questions are on your mind as vaccination campaigns pick up across Canada? CBC Ottawa is answering one a day this week. 

    Monday: When can we start travelling overseas again?

    Tuesday: When can we stop wearing masks?

    Wednesday: When will the Canada-U.S. border reopen?

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