Belgium’s cultural and artistic sector has been reacting to yesterday’s news of a slight relaxation of the rules governing events such as plays and concerts.
Yesterday the national security council agreed, among other measures, to allow events to take place with a limit on audiences of 200 indoors, and 400 outdoors. That is twice as many as are allowed at present, but the improvement has received a tepid welcome from the sector.
“This is painful and unworkable. There are going to be bankruptcies,” predicted musician Tom Kestens, who also happens to sit on the crisis cell for the sector.
“Absolute numbers are absurd,” he told VRT News. “Everyone knows that we can work corona-proof. We have been working on that for months. We could pass perfectly easily to a proportional room capacity, but instead we get another symbolic measure. This is painful and absurd.”
The measure does contain the proviso that local mayors can give permission for greater numbers to attend if they are satisfied by safety arrangements, including the size of the venue. But Kestens remains unimpressed.
“Once again we have a multiplicity of responsibility. We have to count on the mayors one municipality and one city at a time. We are travelling all over the country to explain how safely we can work. These are tiresome processes,” he said.
The crisis cell had proposed a proportional plan consisting of allowing audiences up to 60% of the capacity of the venue, providing measures such as face-masks and distancing were in place. Instead, the security council went for hard numbers, regardless of whether the venue is a small local theatre, Bozar or the Sportpaleis.
Michael De Cock is artistic director of the Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS) in Brussels, and agrees on the point of capacity.
“The absolute number is silly, when we can work safely with a higher capacity,” he said.
“We have been asking for unity of command, but now exceptions still have to be requested locally. That’s strange, because the virologists agree that our industry can operate very safely, but the measures for culture have gone from foolish through increasingly foolish and back to foolish again.”
To add to the disappointment, the new extension is nothing more than a return to the status quo ante.
The culture sector was in lockdown until 1 July, and it returned with the limit of 200 indoors and 400 outdoors. Many productions and concerts were already cancelled, and more were cancelled later because the numbers are just not tenable financially.
Then at the end of July those numbers were cut in half, and now a month later they are returned to the original restriction. So what appears to be a concession is in fact nothing of the sort.
There was a small welcome for the measure in one quarter, however.
“This means that we can increase the capacity of 35% of our concerts and thus allow a larger audience than what was possible before this relaxation,” said Veerle Simoens, director of the Ghent Festival of Flanders in a statement.
“At the same time, as many fellow festivals abroad already prove, we were completely ready to switch to an audience capacity commensurate with the size of the concert halls.”
But the attitude of the sector on the whole is best represented by theatre maker and actor Stany Crets, posting on Facebook.
“We asked for respect and we got five centimes,” he wrote. “Give us back our audience.”