One week, the festival is on. The next week, the next one is off.
As the world heads into the second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor's March 15 executive order "COVID-19 Preparedness Plan Guidance: Requirements for Outdoor Venues" places restrictions on public gatherings. For cities planning to host festivals this summer, that means adhering to social distancing and COVID safety rules.
"I think people are COVID exhausted," said Terrilynn Twaddle, president of Pine Island Cheese Festival, scheduled for June 4-6. "They’ve been dealing with this for over a year. Where we are today is very different."
After canceling the event in 2020, Twaddle said the Cheese Festival committee moved their food and carnival vendor contracts forward to 2021 with the hope of hosting the event this year. And after looking over the executive orders – and deciding against radio and tourism website ads in order to keep crowds from swelling – Twaddle and her fellow Cheese Festival volunteers believed they could meet safety expectations.
113 square feet
The biggest obstacle most festival organizers will face, said Brandon Helgeson, executive director of Rochesterfest, is the 113-square-foot rule. That rule says every person should have 113 square feet of space for proper social distancing.
"That might be a little tougher with someone doing a street dance, for example," Helgeson said.
To make sure it doesn't become a problem for Rochesterfest, Helgeson said he booked extra parks in case he needs to move an event away from the main space at Soldiers Field Park. The key, he said, is having contingencies built into the planning so if Gov. Tim Walz dials up the social distancing or a new variant of the coronavirus starts spreading around the region, the party for Rochester can spread out a bit more.
A tough 2020 season
Helgeson said he hopes to avoid last year, when, in his first year as executive director, he had to make the tough call to cancel Rochesterfest.
Instead, he spent 2020 devising socially distanced events such as concerts and movies attended in cars, and a holiday lights tour that turned into a big hit with people looking for reasons to get out of their houses.
"I thought there’d be 50, 60 cars, and I stopped counting at 200," he said.
Being creative kept Byron Good Neighbor Days afloat in 2020, but the events were very different than those normally associated with the event.
"We were probably one of few that did hold our event last year, and it went very, very well," said LeAnn Bieber, a member of the Good Neighbor Days committee. Virtual events replaced in-person ones for 2020, but Bieber said the 2021 version will look more like the norma.
The big concern is the Good Neighbor Days parade and being able to ensure social distancing, Bieber said. Another is the game night planned for the Saturday night of the festival, and the vendor fair.
"We’re meeting (Thursday) night and looking at what those guidelines that the governor put out," Bieber said. "What’s going on now could be better or worse as we get closer to the event." Good Neighbor Days will be July 15-18.
Bieber said the individual events with Good Neighbor Days One are planned by individual committees, so the main committee is encouraging the various groups to have a "plan B" ready, and to include COVID-safety protocols, such as social distancing and hand-sanitizing stations.
"We'll ask them 'how are you being safe,'" Bieber said. "We're making sure people understand, if you have to cancel the event, you have to cancel the event."
One canceled event
While Cheese Fest, one of the first area events on the summer calendar, is on, that's not the case for Volksfest in Goodhue. With a planned appearance by Hairball, an '80s rock tribute band that has been headlining since 2000, Volksfest typically draws a huge crowd.
That, said Lori Agre, Goodhue city clerk and a member of the Volksfest committee, is the problem.
"If you take our square footage on the street, divide by 113, that leaves us with space for 240 people," Agre said.
The city initially planned to hold Volksfest June 11-13, but after the executive order came out had to cancel. Between the cost of putting the festival on – booking the band, fireworks, other entertainment, food vendors – and the limits on attendance, the festival would be a financial loss.
Agre added that the executive order insists attendees eat and drink while seated, something that would be hard to enforce at Volksfest.
"There’s a lot of money involved," Agre said. "And there's just not enough time to know if governor will change his guidelines. We’d hoped COVID numbers would decrease and the governor would open things up, but that’s not happening."
Agre added that when the city consulted with the League of Minnesota Cities, the organization said it would not be able to insure the event.
"It was really hard for people to accept," Agre said. "But everyone has the same set of rules. We’re all on the same playing field."
Like Agre, Helgeson said he's hoping the COVID numbers and the restrictions will change to make things easier for the June 19-27 festival in Rochester. And for those events scheduled – tentatively at this point – for later in the summer, he suggests organizers keep in touch with health officials to make sure whatever they're planning will meet those safety measures.
"Work directly with your local county health department," Helgeson advised. "We’ve had conversations with Olmsted County Public Health to make sure we're being safe."