CALGARY — A bird's-eye view of a popular live music venue on its first night at the Calgary Stampede showed hundreds of people standing close together, waiting for a swab or to hand over proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
By night's end Thursday, thousands had come in and out of the 18-plus party tent called Nashville North, believed to be the first major venue in Canada to enforce testing or require health care information to enter.
The popular open-air concert hall is open each day and night during the 10-day western festival and rodeo.
New safety measures adopted by the Stampede this year include cutting daily attendance in half. Staff and volunteers are also required to wear masks and get COVID-19 rapid tests.
In order to enter Nashville North, patrons must have proof of having had at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot two weeks prior. Otherwise, a negative rapid test result at the tent door or at an entrance to the Stampede grounds.
Jim Laurendeau, the Stampede's vice-president, said visitors have so far been "good-natured" about conditions of entry to the music party. As of Friday morning, he was unaware of any positive cases resulting from rapid tests.
"We find ourselves in this position just by virtue of the timing of our event at the end of this pandemic," said Laurendeau. "In a rare instance when someone tests positive for COVID, they would be asked by the medical professionals to leave Stampede park and return home and contact Alberta Health Services."
Should an individual refuse to leave or behave inappropriately, Laurendeau said police would be called in to assist as a "last resort." Security is also on the grounds throughout the event.
Alberta was the first province in Canada to relax nearly all of its public health measures on July 1, including its provincewide mask mandate and cap on gatherings. A City of Calgary vote shortly after removed a mask bylaw just in time for Stampede.
If it wasn't for medical professionals dressed head-to-toe in personal protective equipment outside Nashville North, the venue would be a flashback to previous Stampedes with huge crowds dressed in western get-up and downing boozy beverages.
On Friday afternoon, lines were moving quickly. It took just minutes for people to receive bright pink wristbands signalling their approved status to enter the venue. For those undergoing rapid tests, it took about 15 minutes from swabbing to get results.
Will Mallmes, who was visiting from British Columbia, said it was an easy process after he showed proof of his vaccination.
"I think it's good but, honestly, I don't really care. The whole sense of normalcy, coming in and having crowds of people, is fantastic," said Mallmes. "I feel safe enough. I mean, we're all going to die of something."
Others said they felt the same way, as they sat at picnic tables spread throughout the venue, allowing for more space than in previous years.
First-time Stampede attendees Ben Powell and Amy Driscoll, who moved to Calgary just months ago from the United Kingdom, expressed a similar sense of relief for returning to life as it once was.
"We've been double vaccinated now, so it's got to end some time. We either have to live with it or get back to normal," said Powell.
They both said Nashville North requirements make them "feel safer" because they know the person dancing or sitting next to them has either tested negative for the virus or been vaccinated.
Donna Drummond, who took a rapid test to get inside, said it was "nothing," just three seconds in each side of her nose.
"I did have my vaccination but where I went they didn't have any cards and I'm not going to carry around a full sheet of paper. So whatever, I did the rapid test," said Drummond, who used to work at the Stampede.
"I just wish they would open everything up ... I miss international travellers."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2021.