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Corona crisis may disrupt Finland's Independence Day gala plans

The party's traditions--shaking hands and dancing in close quarters--are big risk factors in the spread of coronavirus.

Ruuhkaa tanssilattialla.
During Independence Day galas, the dance floor at the Presidential Palace is usually rather crowded. File photo from 2014. Image: Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

Many in Finland spend the evening of December 6, Independence Day, watching the President’s Reception gala on live TV.

It's a glitzy gathering of the country's movers, shakers, celebrities and war veterans who pack themselves into the capital's elegant but cramped Presidential Palace to mingle, eat, drink and dance in very close quarters.

The ball is hardly the only event held on Independence Day, but is likely its most iconic. One of the most time-honoured traditions of the event is the guest reception line, where the president meets and greets each guest as they arrive with a formal handshake.

But in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, the President's Office is examining alternative ways to hold the reception, although solid plans have not yet been made.

The office said details about the event will be explained "once they have been specified," based on the development of the coronavirus situation.

Risk groups, thousands of handshakes

In terms of the country's Covid-19 infection rate, the daily number of new cases has started to grow this month following a relatively calm June and July, and some have raised doubts about whether the gala could actually be held this year. In recent years, around 1,700 guests are regularly invited to the party.

The president's handshake greeting ceremony usually takes hours to complete, but due to the risk of spreading the virulent disease, shaking hands is not recommended. The palace's dance floor is generally packed to the walls with guests in their tuxedos and gowns, making safe distancing virtually impossible.

Story continues after photo.

Linnanjuhlat 2014
President Sauli Niinistö and his wife, Jenni Haukio greet each guest as they arrive with a formal handshake. About 1,700 guests are invited to the gala every year in recent times. Image: Ari Lahti / AOP

Additionally, on August 24, President Sauli Niinistö will turn 72, an age which puts him a higher risk for serious health complications from a coronavirus infection. The president would hardly be the only person in attendance belonging to the elevated risk group, given that many elderly war veterans are invited every year.

Markku Broas, Lapland Hospital District's chief physician of infectious diseases, said that it was still too early to know whether the epidemic situation in early December would be good enough to be able to hold the event in the traditional manner.

Broas noted that the country still has an opportunity to prevent further spread of the disease, despite the recent uptick in new confirmed infections, most of which were diagnosed in the capital region. He said the way to do that is to continue current elevated testing for the disease as well as enacting restrictions when necessary.

The chief physician did not rule out the possibility that the ball could be held, but said that December was too far off to accurately predict.

He did note that if the gala were to be held now, the event would pose a clear infection risk, because infection rates in the greater Helsinki area are clearly higher than in the rest of the country.

"If the President’s Reception were to be held within the Lapland Hospital District, and only area residents attended, there would be no significant risk of infection," Broas said.

Ball previously cancelled due to war, recession

If this year's palace festivities are changed or cancelled, it won't be the first time but it isn't exactly common either.

The Independence Day gala was not held at the palace during 1939-1945, due to WWII. The event was held off-premises in 1972 (at Helsinki's Finlandia Hall) and in 2013 (at Tampere Hall) due to palace renovations.

A serious financial recession was the reason the ball was cancelled in 1933.

The reception was abruptly called off in 1974 following the death of First Lady Sylvi Kekkonen, the wife of long-time President Urho Kekkonen, who passed away just a few days before the event was scheduled.

The celebrations were also cancelled in 1981, due to President Kekkonen's illness.

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