“I’m a small business owner trying to run an event, and I’m going to do it safely”: A Q&A with the organizer of BeerFest, which will require attendees to be vaccinated

“I’m a small business owner trying to run an event, and I’m going to do it safely”: A Q&A with the organizer of BeerFest, which will require attendees to be vaccinated

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Before the province announced its plan to introduce a vaccine certificate for many public settings this fall, individual businesses and event organizers were on their own to determine the best way to host safe events amid the fourth wave of the pandemic. For organizers like Les Murray (pictured, top right) of Fall BeerFest T.O. that meant announcing that all ticket holders would be required to show proof of full vaccination, becoming one of the first local festivals to do so. Others, like MLSE and LiveNation, soon announced similar policies. We spoke with Murray about making the decision, the pushback he’s received and what he’s most looking forward to at this year’s event.

Last year’s BeerFest and Festival of Beer didn’t happen, for obvious reasons. How have you been keeping busy?
This is my business, right? I’ve been spending my time planning and working on some new events that are going to get off the ground in 2022, some of which we had wanted to launch this year. But we managed to keep our core team together.

You announced that all BeerFest attendees would be required to show proof of vaccination, weeks before the province announced its vaccine certificate plan. How did you arrive at that decision?
Well, within 24 hours of us announcing our vaccination policy, a bunch of big-league organizers, like Live Nation, started introducing their own vaccination policies. So everyone was contemplating it, and we just went ahead and did it. We have a database of past ticket holders, so in June, we reached out to them and asked how they were feeling, how they’d feel about attending the event, and what would make them comfortable. An overwhelming majority of people said they’d be more comfortable attending if we required people to be fully vaxxed. We have a very loyal audience: some people have been to this event every year for 15-plus years, and now they’re coming with their sons and daughters. So we had them first and foremost on our minds, in addition to, obviously, how our event might impact the community and healthcare services.

Has there been any pushback from the anti-vaccine crowd?
Yeah, a little bit. We certainly had some comments on our social media channels about this reflecting a two-tiered system, or that I’m stomping on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I personally was called a few names. And I get it: people have their own views as to what this means for them, in terms of whether it’s infringing on their privacy or their rights, or in terms of their own concerns about getting vaccinated. And they obviously have the right to feel that way. But I’m a small business owner who’s trying to get an event off the ground, and I’m going to do it safely. And the lion’s share of my consumers are absolutely asking for this.

Protesters have stirred things up outside establishments run by vaccine advocates—Jen Agg’s Dundas West restaurants in particular. Are you afraid of something like that happening?
Nope. They can be out front, doing what they do. We’ve had disruptions in the past. Been there, done that.

What other types of safety protocols are necessary for an event like this?
We have a significantly reduced capacity: where we’d normally let in about 12,000 attendees a day, we’ve capped it at 5,000. Customers will have to wear their masks, unless they’re enjoying a beer, obviously. Beer vendors will have their own dedicated tents, instead of being grouped under a large tent with other vendors. And we’ll be doing temperature checks at the door.

Are you concerned about transmission even at an event where everyone has their two shots?
We’re fully outdoors. The gates are outside, the event is outside. Unfortunately the washroom situation is a combination of trailers and some porta-potties, but hey, that’s an outdoor festival. I’m comfortable that our procedures, combined with the fact that we’re outdoors, have a limited capacity, and have laid things out in a way that distancing is possible, will reduce that risk, if not eliminate it completely.

The province’s newly announced vaccination requirements go into effect a few days before BeerFest—but they don’t apply to outdoor events such as yours. Walk us through how people will prove their status.
We’re really trying to make it simple for people: right now, everyone who got vaccinated in the province would have been provided a paper receipt from the Ministry of Health. That’s all we need. If they don’t have that, there’s a site that we’ve provided to people that shows where you can go get it, and save it on your phone.

Certainly everyone will have had a bit more practice with all of this by then. To shift away from Covid for a second: can you let me know what folks can expect at BeerFest this year?
One thing is that the ready-to-drink category —and here, I’m talking about hard seltzers—has really exploded, and a lot of brewers are participating in that category. So we’ll be giving breweries a chance to showcase some of their new products. We’ve also got Dwayne Gretzky performing on Saturday, and Shaggy performing on Friday.

Who are you looking forward to seeing most?
Dwayne Gretzky is so much fun. We’ve hosted them a few times, and everybody loves them. But Shaggy has so many hits, right? I think Mr. Boombastic is going to put on a great show.