There are rising concerns over a number of coronavirus cases believed to have originated at last week’s El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt.
“I’m seeing a growing number of people who attended the Gouna Film Festival are learning they got COVID-19,” warns a Facebook post circulating among those who attended the Oct. 23-31 event. “If you were there, please isolate and get tested. If you test positive, please let everyone you met know so they can isolate and get tested.”
The decision to host parties made El Gouna stand out from other physical events held in Europe in recent months. The festival also tested all foreign guests, which Venice and San Sebastian didn’t pursue. One could reasonably argue organizers did more to protect other guests from asymptomatic cases.
However, Al Jazeera reported Friday that several regional celebrities — who weren’t tested by organizers — have alleged they caught the virus having attended the festival, though some have acknowledged that El Gouna can’t be blamed for their activities outside event premises.
Festival director Intishal Al Timimi confirmed six cases to Variety. “There was one member of staff who contracted coronavirus, and five international guests who had positive tests in El Gouna,” he said. “Two of these [were confirmed] at Hurghada airport, where testing took place.”
“We only tested international guests,” explained Timini. “It wasn’t possible to test every Egyptian national who attended, just as at the Venice Film Festival, where only non-European guests were tested this year.”
Timini also reflected on the difficulty of pinpointing where guests picked up the virus with any certainty. “We are not responsible for the activities in El Gouna or on the Red Sea which do not belong to the festival.”
The cases comes despite the stringent COVID-safe measures instituted by the festival, which was working with the Egyptian Ministry of Health.
All invited international guests were required to take a PCR test, which provides results within the day or in 24 hours, up to 96 hours before flying. Egypt Air wouldn’t allow anyone to board a flight to Cairo without a negative test. Variety knows of at least one case where the airline refused to board a guest without a PCR certificate stating they were free of the virus.
Similarly, most guest hotels also had strict protocols, taking temperature checks as guests entered the premises and asking for a negative PCR certificate. Where there were discrepancies, such as if the date of the PCR test was beyond 96 hours before arrival, guests were re-tested.
For guests traveling directly into Hurghada, where the festival is based, it was possible to fly a charter and get tested at the airport. Variety is aware of one such guest testing positive, and subsequently placed into isolation by the festival. Other guests who were on the same flight as the attendee were also quarantined and tested, only allowed to experience the nine-day festival when cleared of coronavirus.
Safety in El Gouna
Variety was on the ground at El Gouna and observed that COVID-19 regulations — which included mask wearing and social distancing — were largely enforced, particularly indoors. However, open-air areas of the festival weren’t as rigorous in applying virus regulations.
Although the rules detail mask-wearing “in all external/internal areas when distancing is not possible or difficult,” face coverings weren’t always worn by delegates outside. Meanwhile, a one-meter social distancing mandate was not enforced consistently, and some speakers didn’t wear masks around attendees and other speakers.
At the festival’s opening night party, photos from the open-air event show crowds of people close together, with little mask-wearing and no room for social distancing. Other parties at the festival — which were meant to run events at 75% capacity — were similarly congested.
Variety attended two parties — one for the CineGouna Bridge Platform opening and another around the closing — and witnessed a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing that appeared to suggest a failure to enforce festival rules.
Variety is also aware of at least one guest who attended one of the aforementioned parties who had coronavirus at the time. They had tested the morning of the party, but didn’t receive the result until the next day, further underlining the serious challenges of hosting any social gathering during the pandemic.
Upon departure, a final PCR test was conducted as part of the protocol for foreign guests. It’s understood that the festival has taken care of medical and hotel costs for those who had to stay in El Gouna after contracting the virus. There have been rumors of up to 40 positive tests, but this is not confirmed.
Speaking to Variety on condition of anonymity, one guest who tested positive said the festival provided four doctors, some of whom were from the Ministry of Health, and part of a special service for the festival. “They took great care of me. I had no symptoms at all, but they gave me medicine [zinc, vitamin C and green tea], measured my temperature and examined me every day. I was given a COVID-19 test every second day,” said the source.
Festival director Timini said there are no more guests quarantining in El Gouna. However, sources tell Variety there is still at least one attendee remaining.
El Gouna took place just as second wave lockdowns were being announced across Europe due to rising rates of coronavirus. However, festivals continue to take place in Egypt and it’s expected the Cairo Film Festival will go ahead from Dec. 2. In Egypt, there were 189 reported new cases on Nov. 3, down from a peak of 1,200 new daily cases on June 12.