With no end to the pandemic in sight, local governments urged to adapt to new normal of festivals

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 26) - The Department of Tourism is encouraging cities and provinces to adopt new platforms to celebrate festivals amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We hope Filipinos will adopt these new platforms that are being used now to celebrate the fiestas," said Tourism Undersecretary Benito Bengzon in an interview with CNN Philippines' Front and Center.

Despite the absence of live audiences, Bengzon noted that the new normal of celebrating festivals have reached more people even outside the country, thanks to the internet.

"Our local officials talked about virtual performances, which we feel is a good idea because apart from making sure that we follow health and safety protocols, they actually provide a bigger footprint, a global footprint for us to reach out a bigger audience," Bengzon added.

The pandemic has restricted or limited people's movement, preventing large gatherings like festivals. The government currently only allows up to 30% capacity for religious gatherings, workshops, and conferences.

But community assemblies and other entertainment activities are still prohibited in some areas. Hence, several celebrations have gone virtual just like Iloilo's Dinagyang Festival.

Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas shared the city government hired 20 performers, tested them for coronavirus, and put them inside a bubble throughout the preparation for the festival. With no live audience allowed, the organizers taped all the performances.

"So what we did was to get 20 warriors coming from the schools and we tested them and we placed them in a facility for 20 days. They performed for the whole Dinagyang," Treñas told CNN Philippines.

"After 20 days, they were tested again and they were after released, all negative. We wanted to have a very safe celebration and we did it, virtual celebration. All the performances were taped. The celebration was just through social media platforms," he said.

But why Filipinos still celebrate amid the pandemic?

Bengzon said renewing our identity and preserving our cultural heritage have been a "collective responsibility" for Filipinos, explaining why celebrations and traditions continue despite the health crisis.

"That's why even with the very difficult situation that we are in now, we have to continue to celebrate fiestas and festivals because this is very much a part of Filipino traditions," he added. "It is an opportunity for us to show our love for joyous celebrations, to appreciate our arts and culture, cuisine of course in various ways."

Meanwhile, sociologist of religion Jayeel Cornelio said traditions are evolving.

"Tradition is never a homogenous and monolithic thing. It is always evolving; it depends on who is running it and who is implementing it," he said. "Especially in times of crisis or many limitations or inadequacies like our situation today, you will see how people would assert their identities, assert their cultural heritage by adapting to the situation."

But Cornelio believes celebrating traditions is more than just preserving our cultural heritage, but enacting our identity and beliefs.

"What's happening on the internet and how people are adjusting, maybe coming up with small scale activities instead of the large-scale ones, those are really attempts of people to not preserve but really just to enact, live out who they really are," he added. "They are not just about bringing people together but they are also assertions of the values people believe in."

Will still festivals return to the old normal?

Treñas admitted how the pandemic drastically changed the province's biggest festival. Gone are the huge crowds and people bonding together over food and drinks.

"Without the pandemic, there would be people all around the city, a lot of beer will be drunk, a lot of food will be eaten. It's the biggest in the province and the city of Iloilo. So you can imagine the people coming all over and celebrating it with us," he said.

For now, the mayor is hoping that the availability of COVID-19 vaccines will return things to how they used to be.

Iloilo City has allotted more than P200 million for its vaccination program, with 600,000 doses already purchased from AstraZeneca.

"We are very much hopeful, with the vaccines coming in, even only starting from the second half of the year, we will be able to inoculate all who are found in Iloilo City and we can start having the normal Dinagyang, that we all used to celebrate," Treñas said.

Catch the interview on CNN Philippines’ Front and Center on Wednesday, January 27, 7 p.m.