Fairs and festivals play an important role in the culture and economy of communities across the Midwest. But the continued prevalence of COVID-19 could put them in jeopardy again in 2021.
People have flocked to southern Indiana for more than 40 years for the Starlight Strawberry Festival. The event has many hallmarks of traditional small-town celebrations, along with its build your own strawberry shortcake bar.
But that changed last year when the festival was called off due to COVID-19. Organizers recently announced that the event will be canceled again this year.
Dr. Eric Yazel, a local health official, says it could be a sign of what’s to come.
“Anything earlier than probably June or July, we have to accept the fact that that vaccine rollout, we're all going to be working our tails off to get it to people as soon as we can,” he says. “But it's going to be several months before essentially any person who wants the vaccine can get it.”
Even after vaccines are widely available, there’s no guarantee people will rush out to large public gatherings, Yazel says. “Unfortunately, there is a little bit of an unknown.
"And that's just hard when you plan an event that's going to need a lot of community investment and things like that just to host the event. I'm sure that’s a nervous proposition for some people to have an event planned, then all of a sudden have to call it off or scale it back.”
These festivals can be the lifeblood of local businesses across the Midwest — whether it’s Tulip Time in Pella, Iowa, or the Wild Turkey Festival in McArthur, Ohio. They bring customers to restaurants and hotels, which boosts local tax revenues.
Luanne Mattson is with the tourism bureau for two Indiana counties across the river from Louisville. SoIN Tourism is funded by taxes from hotels, so fewer public events means fewer visitors and less money for the bureau to promote the area.
“I think the people that will have the most challenges will be people like restaurants, which always have such thin margins,” Mattson says. “[And] smaller attractions that may not have the money to do a lot of advertising.”
The events that draw people to southern Indiana, including the Kentucky Derby and numerous music festivals, often center around Louisville. But homegrown events also bring people to Hoosier communities along the Ohio River.
Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore points to gatherings like the Easter Egg Hunt, RiverStage Concerts and Steamboat Nights.
“I hate to hear of anybody already canceling events,” he says. “It's not only because I want to get back to normal and have fun times. But economically, you cannot just simply shut everything down and survive.”
Moore says Jeffersonville is moving forward with plans for all festivals this year. But the city is including cancellation clauses in contracts, just in case.
One of the biggest events in Jeffersonville is Abbey Road on the River, which markets itself as the world’s largest Beatles festival.
Founder Gary Jacob had to cancel last year’s event but hopes to mark the 20th anniversary this year. He’s putting together contingency plans, since his acts come from all over the world.
“I think producers like myself, have to manage our own expectations and not expect that we're going to open the doors and people are going to come flooding in,” he says.
Abbey Road usually takes place in May, but Jacob is holding on to other dates as well, including Labor Day weekend and October.
He expects many festival organizers and the local vendors who rely on them will continue to struggle to stay afloat in 2021. But by 2022, he hopes to see some normality return to everyday life.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.