By Mark Gillespie
March 12, 2020 – The Scottish government is among the latest to ban events with large crowds as the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus pandemic spreads. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for the cancellation of events with 500 more people starting next week in order to free up emergency services workers, with no timetable on when events might be able to resume.
As a result, the directors of the Islay Festival of Malt & Music are organizing an emergency meeting to discuss the status of this year’s Fèis Ìle scheduled for May 22-30. That meeting will include local leaders, distillery representatives, and festival directors, and will depend on additional guidance from the Scottish government. Late Thursday night, festival directors posted this update on the event’s Facebook page:
“Following the First Minister’s announcement to ban large gatherings from Monday, we are in the process of arranging an emergency meeting with the Festival Committee, distilleries and other parties. The welfare of islanders and visitors alike is of utmost importance, including the festival’s impact on health and transport services. As any decision we make does not prevent people from travelling to Islay at the time of the Festival, it is important that if Fèis Ìle 2020 is postponed or cancelled, we produce a clear and co-ordinated response from all parties. More advice on the Government gathering ban will be issued by Monday, and we will publish a statement as soon as we are able to offer definitive advice on events.”
The festival attracts whisky lovers from around the world to Islay, and attendance in recent years has been estimated at nearly 9,000 visitors – triple the island’s full-time population of around 3,000 people. That level of tourist traffic has strained Islay’s infrastructure, and the island has limited public health services available to care for patients in the event of a serious outbreak on Islay.
At least two of Islay’s nine distilleries will be closed to visitors because of the coronavirus outbreak following Beam Suntory’s decision to shut down visitor centers and tours at all of its distilleries starting Monday. Laphroaig and Bowmore distilleries are affected by that decision, but as of now, no other Islay distilleries have taken a similar step. Ardbeg has posted a notice on its web site asking visitors who may have traveled to China, Italy, Japan, or seven other countries in the past 14 days and may be suffering coronavirus symptoms to delay a visit to the distillery – a policy also in place at sister distillery Glenmorangie in the Highlands.
Next to actual whisky production, whisky-related tourism is one of the island’s major economic engines, and a cancellation of the Feis or lengthy closings of distillery visitors centers could cause significant economic issues for Islay businesses.
A more pressing concern is the fate of this year’s Spirit of Speyside Festival, which also brings an international crowd of whisky lovers to the Elgin area. That festival is just seven weeks away from its scheduled opening ceilidh on April 30, and thousands of tickets have already been sold for the more than 700 events sponsored by distilleries around the region. While only a handful of the festival’s events would be likely to have 500 or more people on hand, the potential for the coronavirus to spread among people moving between events presents a serious public health issue.
Spirit of Speyside Festival chairman James Campbell acknowledged the seriousness of what he called a “fast-moving issue” in an email, and says festival organizers will follow official Government advice to the letter:
“We still hope to be able to stage our Festival this year, but we are very conscious that we would not wish to put our visiting guests at risk. As further Government advice is forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead, we will be keeping this situation very much under review and will keep everyone updated as we progress,” Campbell said. According to the Spirit of Speyside web site, the festival will continue as planned for now.
This story will be updated as necessary.