This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
On the 20th of March, 2021, the Dutch village of Biddinghuizen welcomed scores of partygoers for the first time since August of 2019.
The area normally hosts one of the Netherlands’ biggest and most-loved festivals, Lowlands, which has been dearly missed by the 55,000-odd Dutch and internationals who attend each year. This time, though, just 1,500 were allowed inside the festival grounds, to take part in the Fieldlab’s Back to Live experiment, a joint initiative between the Dutch nightlife industry and the national government, testing whether it’s possible to hold safe live events in the age of coronavirus.
All attendees were tested for COVID-19 48 hours before entering the grounds, while 150 rapid tests were also randomly administered at the entrance. The 26 unlucky souls who tested positive were not admitted. Once inside, everyone also had to wear a motion tracker and download a location-tracking app to monitor their movements and contact moments. Face masks were also obligatory, but – surprise, surprise – everyone took them off minutes after the party started. No one stopped them.
The big question researchers were trying to answer was: what are the odds of a potential “patient zero” turning an innocent gathering into a deadly super-spreader event? They also had a set of subquestions around how the crowd moved and interacted with each other, whether people kept their mask on and, ultimately, whether they contracted the virus. To answer the latter, each attendant will be tested again between the 25th and 26th of March.
Once inside, everything looked and felt like a regular festival. The one difference was the press area, which happened to be the only place where people were wearing face protection. Standing between a man with a clipboard and a massive thermometer, and reporters from the BBC and NBC, it felt like the only thing missing was a one-way mirror to observe the party-goers (or test subjects) while they let loose.
I had some research questions of my own. For many of the participants, this was the first large-scale party they’d been at in over a year – or at least the first legal one. Would they be incapable of the pre-COVID carefree fun we only vaguely remember? Or would they all completely let go and have an amazing time?
Two of the test subjects, Jessica, 26, and Jase, 30, bridged the divide between the dance floor and the press area to ask if I could take their picture. Jessica said she’d been struggling with the boredom of a months-long lockdown in the Netherlands. “There is no place to put your energy, which is frustrating,” she said.
Jessica is a speech therapist working in senior’s homes, so she’s also seen first-hand how much people have suffered. “I’ve seen so many people sitting in their room, crying, because they’re not allowed any visitors,” she said. “They miss their family, which is terrible. But I also understand the other side of it – people who want to party.”
The Dutch government shut down all non-essential businesses on the 15th of December and imposed a nationwide 9PM curfew in late January. Bars and restaurants have been closed since mid-October. The restrictions have been met with violent protests in many Dutch cities, with people raiding shops and setting cars on fire. Multiple testing centres have also been destroyed. School has now partly resumed and some measures have been relaxed, but the nightlife sector will likely be the last to reopen.
Based on my own observations, people didn’t find it difficult to let go. “This is amazing!” said Jessica, while a mosh pit formed behind her. Dutch rapper Gotu Jim handed a bottle of champagne to fans in the first row. People drank from it one by one, relishing the bubbly nectar and each other’s COVID-negative saliva, their faces distorted by euphoria. After performing a lyrical ode to ketamine, Gotu gave a shout-out to vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca.
Finally, I was allowed out of the press area to participate in the experiment – but it seemed my limbs weren’t yet ready. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve aged 50 years, spending my Sundays in a recliner, reading books, listening to baroque music and tackling the occasional home improvement project. So it’s not surprising it took me a while, and a couple of shots, to Benjamin Button my way back onto the dance floor.
Wearing a hippie-chic outfit, Dutch singer Maan launched into a cover of Santana’s Maria Maria, which I took as a homage to the band’s legendary performance at Woodstock in 1969. “We have to do this together!” she said, in a nod to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pandemic catchphrase.
Thankfully, Dutch DJ Rockefellababe helped me shake off that unwelcome reminder of the outside world. A guy next to me in the crowd lit three cigarettes in his mouth before handing them out to friends. Everything was sticky, thanks to the shots of Flügel liqueur being sold by waitresses in pink outfits making their way through the crowd. “Feel free!” yelled the DJ’s MC. No need to tell me twice.
Dutch actor and rapper Bilal Wahib called for hugs as soon as he took the stage. Minutes later, he crowd-surfed shirtless. Some couples left the dance floor to make out somewhere semi-private, while others stuck their tongues down each other’s throats in full view. The audience was a glorious, chaotic mess, until someone played Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind and all test subjects came together to sing as one.
While our scientists work hard to outsmart the virus with vaccines and nasal swabs, it’s good to know that booze and a beat are enough to temporarily erase a year of boredom and trauma. As far as I’m concerned, humanity has got this in the bag. We will bounce back – medically and mentally.