San Sebastian Takes Different Route to Venice Fest on Covid-19 Measures

Unspooling in Spain, one of the European countries that’s been the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the San Sebastian Film Festival was allowed to maintain its 2020 edition under strict sanitary guidelines, albeit with a different approach from the Venice fest.

The San Sebastian Festival, which kicked off on Sept. 18, just over a week after Venice ended, faced the challenge of “creating a health protocol from zero,” said Maialen Beloki, the deputy director of the San Sebastian Film Festival.

“We looked at what Venice and the Malaga festivals (a smaller fest in Spain) had done, but ultimately we had to start from scratch and break the ground here, so we worked with the health and culture ministries to deliver a 200-page protocol with sanitary guidelines,” said Beloki.

1,500 guests are attending this 68th edition, that’s 50% down on a regular year. There was a large volume of last-minute cancelations due to the health situation and travel restrictions, but some high-profile stars, from Johnny Depp to Matt Dillon, were able to make the trip. Viggo Mortensen is also expected to hit the socially-distanced red carpet to receive a Donostia Award in recognition of his career.

The festival executive contends that it’s a “miracle” that the festival could happen in the first place considering how active the pandemic still is in Spain.

As of Monday, there were 31,428 new cases in Spain, a third of which are in Madrid where neighborhoods have been placed back under near lockdown to contain the outbreak. That said, Beloki pointed out the number of cases has been dropping significantly in the Basque Country, where San Sebastian is located. She also pointed there haven’t been any cases stemming from movie theaters in San Sebastian.

Some of the key measures are the pre-booked assigned seatings for every screening, mask mandatory at all times, a cap on gathering and seatings set at 10 people, and social distancing in auditoriums. The seating capacity of auditoriums have been reduced by 40% to 60%, and there is a 60-to-90-minute break between each screening to allow for the cleaning of the room. The selection of films was therefore reduced.

In addition to the 200-page document dealing with the whole of the festival, San Sebastian officials also issued 20 different protocols for all of their staffers.

But unlike at Venice, neither the Spanish authorities nor the San Sebastian Festival are requiring guests to take a Covid-19 swab before departure or upon their arrivals at the fest. “We’re not asking people to take the PCR test before attending because it’s not very indicative. It just tells you if you have COVID at a given time and you could become positive from one day to another,” said Beloki.

San Sebastian isn’t using thermoscanners either to take guests’s temperatures at festival entrance points. “The use of thermoscanners wasn’t recommended by authorities here. It tells you if you have fever but not COVID. As we know, there are lots of cases which are asymptomatic and some people can also cheat by taking fever-reducing medicine, said Beloki.

Beloki added that San Sebastian festival guests are instead required to fill out a responsibility statement saying that they “will take all of the necessary measures to avoid causing situations likely to spread the COVID-19 virus.”

The festival executive said that so far there haven’t been any COVID cases during the festival. In case of a suspected contamination, the festival will organize for the guests to be tested immediately and have results within 24 hours. If found positive, the guests will either be quarantined in a San Sebastian hotel or be repatriated with the help of the festival.

“Thanks to the assigned seatings, the traceability is quite easy and we also have 10 COVID chats group to let us know ASAP of any potential infection,” said Beloki.

Known to be particularly lively and festive, San Sebastian is taking place this year without parties or cocktails but screenings were maintained. “This edition is all about movies and we’re placing the emphasis on moviegoing, which is why we opted not to do virtual screenings,” said Beloki.

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