Area festival planners
wrestle with forced cancellations
COVID-19 pandemic puts damper
on events for 2020
(August 2020) – Normally this time of year, this newspaper would be full of ads and stories previewing the many summer and fall events.
Not this year.
COVID-19 put an end to that, forcing the cancellation of dozens of events throughout the region. For tourism officials and festival planners, dealing with these uncertain times has been challenging, to say the least. But a few are still hanging onto hope that their events will go forward as planned. Problem is, there is always that possibility lurking that the state’s governor or local officials will step in to shut everything down as the number of positive COVID -19 cases continues to rise.
The next major event scheduled to occur in the region was the Madison Ribberfest, albeit a shortened version of the usual two-day festival. This year’s festival was trimmed down to one day on Saturday, Aug. 22, and featuring mostly local musicians, with the exception of headliner the Greg Foresman Band of Nashville, Tenn.
At press time, the Ribberfest Committee was still wrestling with a decision on whether to move forward with this year’s event, due to the safety restrictions that have been enforced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to music, the festival annually features pro and amateur barbecue cooking contests – the pro contest sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and the amateur contest, which this year is being sponsored for the first time by RoundAbout. The RoundAbout accepted an offer to take over the sponsorship after the Madison Courier gave it up just prior to the sale of the paper last February.
Even with the shortened festival, holding all the events in a single day would present a challenge for organizers, said Ribberfest chair Katie Burress, an event coordinator on staff at VisitMadison Inc., the county’s tourism office. She has been leading the Ribberfest Committee meetings of volunteers who put on the event and says all the work has been going under a cloud of possible forced cancellation due to COVID -19.
“We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of everyone, and that includes our volunteers and guests who come to the event,” said Burress, who is also the primary contact at VisitMadison Inc. to the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art Committee. “It’s been stressful because of the uncertainty, but despite all that, we still want to give our community and Ribberfest fans a good time. We have been paying attention to the guidelines from the state and local government and the local health department.”
Adding to the situation, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on July 22 issued a statewide mask-wearing mandate, due to the rising number of COVID -19 cases in the state.
On July 1, Holcomb announced plans to pause the state’s re-opening at Phase 5 and hold at what he called Phase 4.5. This phase allows gatherings of more than 1,000 people as long as organizers submit a health plan coordinated with their local health department.
Jefferson County (Ind.) Health Department Executive Director Blythe Couch cited the state’s latest guidelines for holding outdoor events exceeding 250 people that was released July 23. The directive requires event planners to be approved at least seven days in advance by local health officials before proceeding. The guidelines require that event planners have enough staff or volunteers during the event to monitor and ensure compliance of the plan.
During the July meeting of the VisitMadison Inc. volunteer board, Executive Director Tawana Thomas told the group how proud she was of the Ribberfest and Chautauqua Committees’ hard work and dedication during this difficult time of uncertainty.
The Madison Chautauqua is still on schedule to hold its festival on Sept. 26-27, officials said. “These committees have done their research and are communicating well with each other to keep everyone updated so the right decisions can be made in the best interest of VisitMadison and the entire community.”
Board President Cara Fox told the group that the festival committees “are looking at the situation and what they have to do to move forward and just taking it day by day.”
Other festival organizers in the region are facing the same dilemma. The Pilot Club of Madison on July 21 announced it was cancelling its three-day Fall Old Court Days, which takes place over the same weekend as the Madison Chautauqua – Sept. 25-27. Pilot Club member Elsie Perry Payne said several members had been sick “and this is not a good time for us or them to be facing the public.”
The club also holds a Spring Old Court Days each year, but its Memorial Day Weekend event also had to be cancelled this year. Vendors who had registered were offered a refund or the option to apply their fees toward next year’s festival.
The string of festival and event cancellations began March 24 in Madison. Mayor Bob Courtney issued a press statement to cancel or postpone all public events in the wake of the COVID -19 pandemic for 60 days.
“We understand our community looks forward to the many events and festivals our city has to offer,” Courtney’s statement read. “Our restaurant and small business owners, in particular, look forward to the extra foot-traffic during festival season; however, community safety and curbing the spread must be our top priority during this time. This was a difficult decision, but a precaution we must take.”
Thomas also weighed in as part of the press release, saying, “For now, this situation is our reality. It is scary and confusing, but as a community, we see people coming together as never before. Madison will continue to support each other because that is what the people of Madison do. The staff at VisitMadison will work hard to support our tourism partners and to create new ways to introduce and persuade visitors to come and experience the ‘magic of Madison.’ Our best days are ahead of us. Madison, Ind., will lead the way in reintroducing southern Indiana to friends, family, and visitors.”
As the situation with COVID -19 worsened in recent weeks, Courtney and the health department on July 15 were forced to suspend all activities at Rucker Sports Complex in Madison when it was discovered that two people who had used the complex had tested positive for the virus. The city’s parks department plans to re-evaluate the situation on Aug. 1, the press release said.
Many other area events have become victims of the pandemic for 2020: The Madison Regatta and Roostertail Festival, Jefferson County (Ind.) Fair, Oldham County Day and Arts on the Green in La Grange, Ky., Swiss Wine Festival in Vevay, Ind., Neavill’s Grove Old Settler’s Meeting, Trimble County Apple Festival, Trimble County Fair, Canaan Fall Festival, Hispanic Cultural Awareness Day, Rising Sun’s A Hot Summer Night, Rockin’ on the River in Madison, Tri-Kappa Tour of Homes.
And the list goes on.
Photo by Don Ward
The Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art is the town’s largest art festival of the year, but it’s future hangs in the balance for 2020 due to COVID-19.
Arts Association of Oldham County members held out for as long as they could in planning to hold their Arts on the Green festival this year on a new date and new location at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Crestwood, Ky. But on July 1, organizers had to cancel the July 25-26 art festival – which was entering its 21st year and draws about 150 artists and nearly 10,000 visitors annually.
In a press release announcing the cancellation, the arts association’s executive director, Brenda Marks, said, “We worked very hard in cooperation with our artists, Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, Oldham County health officials and state and local leaders to create a safe environment amid COVID -19 issues. While proposed safety precautions had been put in place and approved, these restrictions severely limited the number of attendees and artists willing to participate. This, coupled with the current trend in COVID -19 concerns, drove our decision to cancel the event in the best interest of everyone.”
Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope for some upcoming events besides the Madison Ribberfest and Chautauqua. The 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydros group is moving forward with its fifth annual Madison Vintage Thunder exhibition of hydroplanes on Sept. 19-20 on the Ohio River. The group expects up to 40 vintage hydros to take part in the event.
“Our planning for the event is going surprisingly well,” said 5-to-the-5 board member Paul Nicholson. “We will be taking up the entire length of the waterfront, so there will be plenty of room for social distancing. And we hope that by the end of September, the governor will have lifted the recent mask-wearing mandate.” Gov. Holcomb issued the mandate July 22 and said he hoped to lift it by mid-September.
Nicholson added that since there is so little boat racing going on because of the pandemic that the group is hoping for a large crowd this year.
In La Grange, Ky., the Main Street Program is working with local merchants to stage a new event, the La Grange ArtsFest and Trackside Market on Sept. 11-12. The organization also moved its Blue Hydrangea Tea event from April to Sept. 20 this year.
Main Street Executive Director Sandie Fulks said the new La Grange ArtsFest combines a mix of music, a vintage market and a juried arts event in the Main Street district. There will be live music available both days.
Fulks said that planning events during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge, especially while trying to keep up with the changing state and local guidelines as the number of virus cases rise and fall in the state. “It’s been kind of a moving target,” she said. “We are trying to follow state and county guidelines for the COVID crisis because we want to keep everyone safe and also keep the community connected so they don’t feel alone during this period of isolation.”
Fulks said her Main Street board moved what used to be the Trackside Festival back to what is now a September event in hopes the situation would have improved by fall. “But this crisis is still hanging on much longer than what we had hoped. We still want to have our events, but we want everyone to feel comfortable and safe and re-assured.”
In Carrollton, Ky., tourism officials are also moving forward with plans to hold its annual Bands & BBQ at the Point on Sept. 11-12 at the city’s Point Park. Like the Madison Ribberfest, this pro barbecue cooking contest is sanctioned by KCBS and features teams competing in various meat categories while bands entertain the crowd on stage.
The Handcrafted & Homespun Market that was started last year in conjunction with Bands & BBQ has been cancelled this year, according to Carrollton-Carroll County Tourism & Convention Commission Executive Director Misty Wheeler.
Meantime, the city of Carrollton still plans to hold its Fourth of July fireworks event on Sept. 5, which was rescheduled from its original July 4 date. The event, which will feature a full day of food and music at Point Park, is co-sponsored by the tourism office and Carroll County Fiscal Court.
The volunteers who organize the Trimble County Apple Festival reluctantly made an early decision on June 19 to cancel this year’s event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though Trimble County had reported very few cases of the virus. This year’s Sept. 12-13 event would have been the festival’s 30th year in Bedford, Ky.
In a press release announcing the cancellation, Sue Fisher said, “It was unanimously decided that the festival should be postponed until next year based on many factors. First and foremost is that many people who serve on the committee and those responsible for organizing the event and carrying it out have factors that would put them at risk. Secondly, the guidelines set by the CDC and Kentucky to have an event of this size would be difficult to organize and become very costly.”
Fisher cited the CDC website at www.cdc.gov that states: “The more people an individual interacts with at a gathering and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the potential risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and COVID-19 spreading. The CDC qualifies High Risk as large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least six feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.”
The Apple Festival annually attracts more than 15,000 people during two days, with a majority from outside the county. Fisher wrote, “Our small committee felt it could not possibly provide enough volunteers, supplies and equipment needed to ensure the safety of everyone, especially our community members.”
While the future of even those few remaining 2020 events is uncertain, festival organizers and community leaders appear determined to press ahead with staying within each state’s safety guidelines while providing some entertainment at a time when we could all use a little joy.
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