As the rise of the Omicron variant has led to a cascade of canceled events, organizers of the Sundance Film Festival have decided to move forward with their plans for a hybrid in-person and online festival. But when attendees descend on Park City next month, they’ll be met by a stricter set of COVID protocols announced Thursday. Boosters will be required for most people, theaters and event spaces will operate at reduced capacity, and no food or drink will be served at screenings or public events put on by Sundance.
“We will continue to monitor the general levels of community transmission and local COVID-19 vaccination coverage in our in-person communities, working to maximize their health safety and adjust any plans as needed for the safety of our community. Any further policy updates will be shared in early January,” reads a statement from the festival.
The new requirements, which are additions to ones announced earlier this year, are among the strictest for any pandemic-era event to date. The rules are meant to increase the safety around the core festival experience — watching films with an audience — while curbing the number of crowded, mask-free gatherings.
Boosters will be required for all attendees who are eligible and for whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. The CDC currently recommends everyone 16 or older get a booster if it’s been at least six months since they received their initial Pfizer or Moderna shots, or two months since their initial Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The Metropolitan Opera is among the only other arts institutions to announce a booster requirement. California officials announced booster requirements this week for public universities and a plan to require the shots for health care workers.
Sundance had previously announced that it would require participants to be fully vaccinated and submit a negative test result within 48 hours prior to arrival or upon arrival, along with a requirement to test negative within 48 hours prior to attending some official festival events, such as Q&As, press lines, and private receptions.
Masks were previously set to be required at all festival-operated venues, but the new rules give fewer excuses to take them off. Food and drink will not be served in theaters, nor at public events hosted by Sundance.
Also new is the announcement that theaters and official event spaces will operate at reduced capacity, though Sundance has not yet announced to what degree.
The changes come after a week that has brought a parade of canceled and postponed January events. The Palm Springs Film Awards Gala and BAFTA Tea Party were called off, while the Academy’s Governors Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and Cinema Eye Honors were all postponed to to-be-determined dates. Many of those are large gatherings that include meals and mingling. The Palm Springs International Film Festival is still moving forward as planned — with a mask and vaccine requirement — despite the canceled gala.
Omicron is now the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for three-quarters of cases, according to the CDC. New York state on Wednesday saw the highest number of COVID cases in a single day since the pandemic started, marking the fifth time in a week that record was broken. In Los Angeles County, the number of daily cases Wednesday doubled compared to the day before, one of the steepest rises since March 2020. Utah officials reported on Wednesday that nearly 95 percent of the state’s ICU beds are full.
Sundance’s booster requirement comes as early studies show that an additional shot significantly increases protection against Omicron. For example, Moderna announced this week that preliminary data shows its booster increased Omicron-neutralizing antibodies by 37 times compared to pre-booster levels.
While the new Sundance rules are meant to increase safety for attendees, much of the activity around the festival happens in spaces outside its control — at condo gatherings and parties on Main Street hosted by brands or teams behind some of the competing films. And organizers are pushing everyone to follow the festival’s lead for those unofficial events. If they’re successful, the festival experience will be one where the pandemic remains front-of-mind, rather than serving as a place where COVID realities can be left behind at the Salt Lake City airport.
Though many industry members have been eagerly planning to return to Park City after two years, the 2022 Sundance has been conceived from the start as a hybrid event. Building on the success of last year’s festival, which was almost entirely online, organizers this time around are offering a beefed-up virtual component meant to bridge the gap between the in-person and virtual experiences.
Public ticket packages and press and industry passes all include access to online screenings, and every movie is available to watch online. Many online screenings will again be followed by live Q&As. The majority of talks will be streamed live and available later on demand. And in an improvement from the 2021 festival, online press and industry screening windows have been extended to 72 hours, while all-access pass holders gain access to films the same night they premiere in person.
The festival also announced details of its vaccine verification procedure: Attendees will be required to upload their vaccination cards into a portal via a link sent by email. They’ll get a QR code once verified, which will allow them to pick up a wristband when they’re in Park City. They can also show their paper cards to pick up a wristband.
Sundance is offering several free testing locations throughout Park City and Salt Lake City, which will issue wristbands that allow entry into official venues.