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Juno Awards in Saskatoon cancelled at the last minute over COVID-19 concerns

Annual Canadian music awards gala was scheduled to happen this Sunday
A Juno Awards sign hangs over the baggage carousels at the John G. Diefenbaker International Airport in Saskatoon on Thursday. Canada’s biggest celebration of homegrown music, the Juno Awards, have been cancelled over concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Matt Smith

SASKATOON — Canada’s biggest celebration of homegrown music, the Juno Awards, have been cancelled over concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak — a move one music publicist says was the right decision but is also a “devastating” blow to the industry.

The big bash was to take place with thousands of fans and dozens of musical acts on Sunday at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, and broadcast on CBC.

The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences said Thursday morning the decision was made with input and guidance from local tourism and provincial health authorities.

Also cancelled was the Juno Week activities leading into the 49th annual show. Those events included the Juno kick-off concert, the Juno Cup celebrity hockey game, and the Juno Fan Fare meet-and-greet.

“We are devastated to cancel this national celebration of music, but at this time of global uncertainty, the health, safety and well-being of all Canadians must stand at the forefront of any decisions that impact our communities,” said Thursday’s joint statement from CARAS and its Junos partners.

“We know this is the right decision based on the information we currently have and are continuing to receive.”

The Junos news came around the same time that Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health announced the province had its first presumptive case of COVID-19.

Some artists had already flown to the city to partake in Juno Week events, and shortly before the cancellation, the SaskTel Centre was still selling tickets to Sunday’s show.

Still, others were reluctant to attend.

Vancouver indie rock outfit Said The Whale tweeted Thursday that they had pre-emptively cancelled their plans to attend because of the pandemic.

And Toronto-based music publicist Eric Alper said he’d already scrapped plans to attend and told the 16 artists he works with not to go either.

Organizers faced a flood of calls on social media for the event to be cancelled in the 24 hours leading up to Thursday’s announcement, including some from doctors and politicians.

“I’m pretty devastated,” Alper said in a phone interview after the cancellation.

“I wish that CARAS, the Juno committee, might have been able to do this a couple of days ago, before people started to travel and make real plans for it. But that’s the way things go when not only in this country but around the world — we’re all learning about what could potentially be the new normal over the next couple of months,” Alper said.

“It’s just devastating for the artists and the music industry that have worked tirelessly to make Canadian music’s biggest night happen.”

This is the first major Canadian entertainment awards show to be cancelled amid the spread of the virus.

The Junos rotate through cities from year to year, providing an economic and tourism boost for the host region, with legions of artists and fans descending on the area.

They also add a huge level of exposure for rising artists and excitement for host cities.

Pop singer Alessia Cara was set to host with a leading six nominations. On Instagram Thursday, she said she got word of the cancellation immediately after landing in Saskatoon Wednesday night. She said she was sad but understood why it was done.

Her fellow album of the year nominees include crooner Michael Buble, Bryan Adams, Toronto rapper Nav and neoclassical pianist Alexandra Streliski.

Presenters at the big show were to include country star Dallas Smith, the Sheepdogs frontman Ewan Currie, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault.

This was the second time Saskatoon was picked to host the bash, after the Junos in 2007 when Nelly Furtado served as host.

In a statement, CARAS said it would look other ways to honour this year’s winners. The organizers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Alpert said he would love some sort of a “closed-circuit” Junos take place online instead.

He said the financial toll from the cancellation for himself and his artists is “easily in the thousands.”

“We’re talking about flights that didn’t have cancellation insurance, hotels that may or may not be able to cancel without penalty, loss of revenue when it comes to blocking off the entire weekend as opposed to perhaps performing in other places — not just in Canada but in the U.S. or in the U.K.,” Alper said.

“And also just the dozens and hundreds of hours of working ability that we were all working towards this weekend to put on as great of an an event as possible. And that stuff just can’t be replaced, but it’s the only decision that that CARAS and the Juno Awards could have made.”