The sudden freezing of use of the Covid passport in regions currently considered to be in the community transmission phase of the pandemic has proven enormously confusing for event organisers.
The latest regulation has temporarily removed the use of the Covid passport as a means to gain entry to public events and customer premises wherever regional restrictions are enforced. The legislation was approved by the government on Tuesday and will result in empty indoor sports arenas and movie theatres across the country.
Simultaneously, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (STM) has instructed regional government agencies (Avi's) to reflect on public event restrictions in their respective areas of operation.
STM's guidelines have been met with confusion by the regional agencies, leading to strategy meetings throughout the day on Wednesday.
"Of course, this now raises questions in the regions, as the legislation restricting the use of the Covid passports overrides the information provided earlier," says Leena Laajala, Director of the Regional State Administrative Agency of Western and Inland Finland (Avi).
Minister: Communication has been lacking
The Minister of Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä (Cen) told Yle that he has received a lot of feedback from different parties, such as cultural institutions and the Finnish Ice Hockey League, and said he understands the confusion.
"Rapid changes that take place within a week are confusing to both the parties subjected to the restrictions and us decision makers. This is unfortunate. The feedback speaks of mass confusion," Lintilä told Yle, adding he hopes that the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health will provide more detailed information on Wednesday regarding what the restrictions mean in concrete terms.
"Communication has been lacking," the minister admitted.
Up until Tuesday afternoon, both policymakers and event organisers believed that in the case of low-risk events, the Covid pass could circumvent restrictions. The government had recommended the partial shelving of the Covid pass, a suggestion that turned out not to be possible under current law.
"As recently as last week, the government had hoped that a Covid passport could be used for low-risk events where all seats are numbered. At yesterday's [Tuesday's] government session, Justice Chancellor Tuomas Pöysti announced that he would not approve the proposal for legal reasons, based on the constitution," Lintilä added.
The motion was withdrawn from the government session on Tuesday afternoon, and another motion to freeze the Covid passport as a means to gain entry to all events was approved at a later meeting.
The legislation takes effect at midnight
In addition to sporting events, venues such as theatres, cinemas and many other places where people gather will also have to cope with regulations set by the regional government agencies from Thursday onwards. The Covid pass ruling is valid until 20 January.
The basketball club Kauhajoki Karhu Basket anticipates that their upcoming matches will not be attended by many people. In Southern Ostrobothnia, gathering restrictions are currently set to a maximum of 20 people.
"There is no other way to interpret the regulation: The next few weeks will go on without spectators since the Covid pass has been frozen," Vesa Ojala, chair of Karhu Basket, said.
Ojala added that he understands why this conclusion has been reached but would appreciate more clarity on the matter.
"What's unfortunate is that things are changing at such a rapid pace. It’s hard to stay on top of how to proceed. The public is equally puzzled by these twists and turns," he said.
BioRex demands prompt action
Aku Jaakkola, CEO of the cinema franchise BioRex, told Yle he is "appalled" by the recent information, adding that shelving the Covid passport is a mistake.
"Everything is still up in the air. We have to wait and see how things progress today [Wednesday]. It seems that the government has made a pretty big mistake, which is now being fixed by instructing the regional Avi's," Jaakkola said, adding that he is hopeful a solution will be found quickly.
"I am confident that Avi will put things in order if the government so requests. Regardless, it still is shocking that we once again can't trust what had been promised," he said.
BioRex, which operates all over Finland, has already closed its cinemas in areas where public events are prohibited.
According to the current guidelines, the brand-new theatre in Seinäjoki will have 20 people per screening starting from Thursday. Cinemas in the west coast city of Vaasa will play to a maximum of 50 people while in the southern city of Hämeenlinna the maximum capacity is set at just ten people.
"It leaves you speechless. Five million viewers in Finland, no evidence of transmission, and the first ones to close again. The treatment during this pandemic no longer has anything to do with facts and health safety. This sucks," Jaakkola added.
He also demanded urgent action from the government.
"If I, personally, make a mistake there is no time to dilly dally. Things must be put in order. That’s just normal decency. I hope to see actions today, anything else would be shocking," he said.
The likelihood of any rapid change to the Covid pass policy is slim. According to Lintilä, the matter would require an amendment to the law, which would in no way take place before January 20.
Until then, the Covid pass freeze is in force.