Festival organizers apologize after packed parties with no social distancing or masks in Mexico

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(CNN) — The organizers of a “international arts, music and cultural festival” have apologized after images and video posted on social media revealed packed crowds of partiers without masks in Mexico’s hipster resort town of Tulum.

With art installations and trancey electronic music sets that echoed Burning Man, yoga workshops and “food and wine happenings,” the five-day Art With Me festival drew hundreds of attendees in mid-November. Tickets, priced in the hundreds of dollars, had sold out weeks earlier.

Now, as first reported by the Daily Beast, accounts of tourists from New York City and Miami falling sick after partying at Art With Me are raising fears they could have spread the coronavirus among each other — and brought it home again.

“When people are gathering in front of the DJ, it’s obvious that nobody is wearing a mask because you are at the beach. At that moment, when you’re at a party, you’re not thinking of contagion,” one festival attendee, Marlene Góngora, 40, told CNN.

Góngora, a Mexican lawyer, was in Tulum for three days and attended one of the festival’s parties at the “eco-chic” Amansala Hotel. Videos of the nighttime party show mostly maskless people in beachwear bobbing to music under a red-lit tent, and in thick crowds along the beach. The hotel did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Courtesy Marlene Góngora

Another video Góngora shot earlier during the day on the beach also shows guests grouped around a drumming performance, with no apparent social distancing.

The festival’s organizers on Thursday said they regretted “not cancelling the event entirely.” Despite cooperation with the Mexican government on health measures and additional precautions like temperature checks and mask distribution “we learned that we cannot control people from adhering to guidelines, or staying away from other venues in the area that did not adhere to our standards,” the festival told CNN in a statement.

“We stand behind our protocols and are grateful to the Mexican government for their incredible cooperation. However, in the end, we regret not canceling the event entirely. We apologize for any strain this may have caused our already overtaxed healthcare system and front line workers, and we hope others might learn from our experience,” the statement read.

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Setting rules in paradise

So far, only 303 cases have been confirmed in Tulum, where Mayor Victor Mas tells CNN he has avidly followed WHO recommendations, even making masks mandatory in public — though what happens on private grounds and beachfronts is another story.

On this stretch of the Caribbean coastline, the attractions are largely outdoors, where the risk of virus transmission is lower: Tourists spend their days exploring ruins, paddling through cenotes and sunbathing, while restaurants are as likely to offer guests seats under the branches of trees as indoors.

But in contrast to many other parts of the world trying to keep Covid-19 under control, up to 300 people are allowed to mingle at a time in Tulum as long as they remain within venue capacity limits, Mas says. This made it possible for Art With Me organizers to host their festival, which Mas says took place at five locations across town.

Both the town and festival organizers say they tried to create conditions for safe fun. The festival says it provided masks, took temperatures at entrances, and made mask-wearing mandatory “in certain areas.” Local hoteliers also agreed to abide by coronavirus restrictions, including limiting restaurant and bar capacity, says David Ortiz Mena, president of the Tulum Hotel Association.

But enforcing the rules for vacationers trying to unwind was not as simple as making them. “Sadly, even though efforts were made both by the organization of the event and the local government, this event clearly got out of hand,” Ortiz says.

“I think the attendees to the event also have a responsibility. Clearly, people are not taking care of themselves,” he adds.

The party that Góngora attended was smaller than in previous years — about 300 people, she estimates. Once things got going, though, it was nearly impossible to maintain a safe distance from others, she says.

“You could notice that they were trying to apply all the measures, but if you’re in a party dancing it’s hard to practice the social distancing; there was hardly 1.5 meters between people.” (1.5 meters, or five feet, is the recommended distance in Mexico).

And while staffers wore masks, most attendees did not, Góngora said. “The state of mind is that you’re on vacation and nothing that could happen to you is real.”

“You’re on vacation and nothing that could happen to you is real”

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As the first day of winter approaches and freezing temperatures chill much of the US, the high season for tourism is starting in sunny Tulum. Keeping the area’s reputation clean from any association with the virus or potential super-spreader events is vital for the local economy. But how to do that without harshing the mellow for high-paying partiers?

Many of the Covid-19 precautions around Art With Me appear to have been based on an honor system — the festival website asks customers to certify that they haven’t been diagnosed with Covid-19 or traveled in high-risk areas before attending, though it also acknowledges that hosting the event courts “an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Ortiz worries that such large-scale events could damage the rest of Tulum’s tourism industry. “I think it’s one thing to have tourism, to have our beaches open, to have people visiting Tulum,” Ortiz says.

“But yes, if you do this type of event (like Art With Me), it really puts us all at risk, not just the visitors, but our staff, the people who live here. And at the end of the day, not just human lives, but also the economy. People are supposed be able to make a living and there’s no excuse to put us all at risk. We should avoid this at all cost.”

Mayor Mas tells CNN that unless the local Covid-19 alert level drops to “green” — its lowest possible — big festivals will no longer be permitted in Tulum. But another multi-day dance party is still holding out hope for January, with $1,000-$2,700 festival passes for sale online at time of publishing.

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