Is Cannes Destined to Become Next COVID Super-Spreader?

Cannes Film Festival

While we don’t yet know what the hottest red carpet accessory will be on the famed steps of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Théâtre Lumière, we can tell you what it’s not: a surgical mask.

Like most of the world, France has relaxed its safety protocols around COVID-19 despite the ongoing transmission of the highly-infectious Omicron variant, and that extends to the annual celebration of cinema on the French Riviera. Kicking off on Tuesday, industry players and Hollywood stars began pouring into the coastal city on Monday feeling twinges of excitement at the most robust Cannes lineup since the pandemic first struck – though many fear the event itself will be a super-spreader.

“There hasn’t been a major event where a lot of people didn’t get COVID. There’s no way Cannes will be any different,” one sales agent bemoaned to Variety, and that logic tracks. Since Omicron first bulldozed New York City in December 2021, major cultural events that followed resulted in exposures, and cases. March’s BAFTA Awards was accused of being a COVD hotbed, one that claimed acclaimed actor-director Kenneth Branagh (who had recovered by the time he picked up his Oscar for “Belfast”). April’s outdoor Coachella music festival resulted in infected attendees, and May’s annual fashion extravaganza The Met Gala struck down comedian Amy Schumer and Grammy winner Jon Batiste. Last month’s CinemaCon, an exhibition industry trade show, also led to multiple COVID cases.

“I don’t have any clients at Cannes this year, so I don’t have to go,” one top publicity executive bragged over text message. “I feel like I won the lottery.”

Cannes has not completely abandoned safety protocols. While guests will not be required to endure the overwhelmingly glamorous daily “spit” tests to access festival venues (as was required in 2021), masking during screenings will be “strongly encouraged,” Variety previously reported. Participants can obtain a PCR test in a lab located in the city of Cannes, a five-minute walk from the Grand Palais, at $45 a pop. Earlier this month, festival organizers reasoned that vaccination rates were encouraging and the infections were significantly trending downward in France, so lifting most restrictions made sense.

The very first press conference hosted by the festival on Monday afternoon gave an indication of how unwilling attendees will be to wear a mask if it’s no longer mandatory. Out of the crowded room, only a handful of people wore face protection and Cannes’s chief Thierry Fremaux was asked only a single question (by Variety) about COVID during the entire presser.

“Our staff (who control bags and tickets) will wear a mask because we want to be reassuring and we want that those who are worried [will] not be worried and that if something happens it won’t come from the organization of the festival, but they could also get it from a restaurant where there won’t be any masks. So we’re going above and beyond the government regulations,” said Fremaux.

Up until today, wearing a mask was still mandatory in France in public transportation, subways, trains, planes and cabs, but that requirement was just lifted. Olivier Veran, the French health minister, said that wearing a mask was still recommended because the pandemic wasn’t over. As of Sunday, the number of COVID cases dropped by 21% within the last week to 22,844 positive cases, according to the org Santé Publique France.