This is a tale of two crowds.
The first is in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, a magnificently landscaped green-space in the Dutch capital. Hundreds pack together to celebrate unseasonably warm February days.
“It’s not allowed, but we’ll do it anyway,’ one young woman told Dutch TV. “This can’t go on. They can’t leave us at home. We’re getting depressed.”
Video shot by a local Amsterdam news network at the Vondelpark showed the euphoria of young people who, as another woman said, were “fed up” with the rules.
The police crack down. The mayor closes off all but two entrances to the park, so that police can monitor all arrivals.
The second crowd is just a few kilometers away, a few days later, at the Ziggo Dome concert hall. Hundreds file inside to hear the folk singer André Hazes, Jr., croon his corny songs, and sing along.
This time, there is no crackdown. In fact, this time it has explicit approval from the government to disregard the 30-person limit on the few types of indoor gatherings that are allowed.
Everyone in attendance tested negative for coronavirus no more than 48 hours beforehand. They’re all wearing electronic tags to track contacts. It’s part of a government-backed experiment to see how the events industry can get back on its feet in a country that, like much of mainland Europe, has been slow to roll out vaccinations.
It was like landing “in a sort of dream where everything is allowed again,” says Vivian Nagelkerke, 26, who went to the concert with a friend. “It was really legendary to just be back in a concert hall. Before the pandemic I went to concerts three times a week.”
Happy guinea pigs
Eight initial gatherings taking place over the past month were the result of months-long talks between the Dutch government and a group of event planners who came together to form the “Field Lab.”
Researchers devised a series of events – from dance festivals and a seated concert to a football game – to study the behavior of attendees and track any possible infections.
“So far the guinea pigs were very happy with being in the research,” laughs Andreas Voss, professor of infection control at Radboud University.
While they have not yet published any conclusive results, Voss said that by comparing the data from concert-goers to that from the general population, they believe that attending a well-regulated event, divided into bubbles, with a negative PCR test, is no more risky than going about your normal daily life in the Netherlands.
“So far the risk is mostly lower than it would be untested, outside the event,” Voss said. “We certainly have promising results, which show that in many of the situations we created, the risk during the special situation was lower or equal to the one at home.”
The Dutch health minister agrees. Earlier this month he called the initial findings “really encouraging.”
The European Commission earlier this month unveiled plans for a “digital green certificate,” or vaccine passport, to allow those who have been vaccinated to prove their status. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said that such a plan “may be useful in the future.”
‘People let loose’
The risk, of course, was not just to those who attended the events, but to anyone they might come into contact with afterwards. Organizers asked attendees to limit contact with any vulnerable people in the days after the event, and they were required to get a second test five days later.
Nagelkerke said she had seen some negative reactions on Facebook, but her friends and family were mostly just envious.
Field Lab says that they caught 67 positive cases of coronavirus among event hopefuls, who were denied entry. Just five people out of more than 6,000 participants have so far have tested positive in that post-event swab, they say, and researchers can’t be sure whether that infection resulted from attending a Field Lab event.
“What happened in there was just so bizarre,” said Emily Denissen, who celebrated her 32nd birthday at one of the concerts. “People just completely let loose.”
Part of letting loose also meant forgoing guidelines set for attendees. Once the beer started flowing, masks were taken off and social-distancing markers ignored.
But that’s hardly surprising, said Voss, and not a bad thing. “We didn’t influence them in any way, we didn’t correct them during the event, because we want to know what’s happening in real life.
“It’s true that during the dance event and the concert event masks flew off pretty fast,” he said, but during the theater, business conference, and football experiments, he said, more than 94% were wearing masks.
Indeed, only some concert attendees were asked to wear masks. Field Lab created six different bubbles, whose conditions ranged in strictness. The most lax had just 50 people in it, required no face masks, and had an open bar throughout the concert. The most strict had 250 people, required face masks at all times, encouraged people to stay 1.5 meters apart.
“I’m almost unable to describe in words what it was like,” said Denissen. “It was so incredible.”
Niels Fekken, age 21, who went with Nagelkerke, says they were “able to taste real life.”
“I don’t think I was as happy in the past year as on that day.”