SOLFESTUKA CANCELLED, AIRPORT CHECKS HEIGHTENED DUE TO CORONAVIRUS: City urges other events organizers to evaluate plans; stricter flight rules means all passengers will be questioned

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Update 6:45 p.m.: The Norwegian Polar Institute has also announced it is cancelling much of its travel and meetings.

Original story: The remainder of the events for this year’s Solfestuka festival have been cancelled due to coronavirus concerns and organizers of other events are being urged to evaluate their plans, Longyearbyen’s city government announced Wednesday. In addition, Svalbard Airport announced heightened scrutiny of all passengers following stricter guidelines imposed by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

(This is a breaking story in progress. More details being added now and as they become available.)

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While Solfestuka events, including those at Kulturhuset, have been cancelled, other activities at the cultural center are still scheduled including a movie Wednesday evening (although a screening scheduled Thursday by a non-city group has been cancelled). Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The cancellation of the annual return-of-the-sun festival comes after the first local quarantine of people who may have the virus was announced Wednesday morning, and a meeting of emergency and tourism officials later during the day.

“The reason for this is that we want to be ‘precautionary’ in helping to prevent any coronavirus infection from spreading in our communities,” the city stated in an announcement at about 3:45 p.m. “At the same time, we encourage other organizers to consider their own events. This must be done on the basis of a ‘precautionary’ assessment in relation to the framework around the event.”

Refunds will be issued to those who have already purchased tickets to individual events, including a featured concert Saturday by Vassendgutane.

Other scheduled city-sponsored activities will be monitored on an ongoing basis, the notice stated. Among other cultural and recreational activities, the city operates the movie theater at Kulturhuset, Svalbard Museum and Galleri Svalbard.

A screening of the movie “Waves” at 6 p.m. Wednesday is still taking place. But the showing of “The Red Tent” by the Longyearbyen Film Club scheduled for Thursday at Kulturhuset has been cancelled.

The stricter flight rules means all arriving passengers will be questioned about their country of origin and other related matters, Svalbard Airport Manager Carl Einar Ianssen told Svalbardposten.

The outbreak of the virus in Norway, with the first confirmed case on Feb. 26, is occurring during the peak spring tourism season when the largest number of overnight visitors arrive. Among the largest groups will be those aspiring to reach the North Pole during most the month of April and the Svalbard Skimaraton at the end of April, the archipelago’s largest annual event that in most recent years has attracted about 1,000 participants. So far organizers locally and abroad are continuing with their plans, but cautiously.

“We are planning its going to be happening,” said Silje M. Hagen, manager of Svalbard Turn, which organizes the ski marathon. But she is also awaiting information from local officials and will act appropriately on their recommendations.

Eric Phillips, a polar region guide scheduled to arrive in Longyearbyen on Friday to lead expeditions in Svalbard and to the North Pole, said in an online interview there is considerable uneasiness – especially because last year’s entire North Pole season was cancelled due to political and weather problems – but for now they’re proceeding according to guidelines from global health officials.

“We have e-mailed our customers asking them to comply with WHO recommendations on mitigating infection,” he said. “We also asked customers not to visit high-risk areas in the month before departure and to inform us if they experience flu-like symptoms.”

Local government and tourism industry officials acknowledged Wednesday it’s now a matter of when, not if, cases of the virus will occur in Svalbard. Phillips said he agrees with that assessment.

“Judging by the speed it’s moving I think we are all destined to be directly exposed if not infected,” he said.

(This is a breaking story with updates in progress.)