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Fall Festivals Return Just As COVID-19 Cases Spike In Kansas

Hugo Phan
KMUW/File photo

After a year off due to the pandemic, many fall festivals are returning in the coming months. But it's just as Kansas is seeing another unexpected surge in COVID-19 cases.

It started on March 31, 2020, with the Wichita River Festival.

“We are seeing major festivals across the country and around the world making the difficult decision to cancel their events in order to protect local citizens from the COVID-19 virus,” former Wichita Festivals president Ty Tabing said at a news conference. “I am here today to announce that we are following suit, and that this year’s Riverfest is canceled.”

Then, the Tallgrass Film Festival announced it was going virtual.

“We didn’t necessarily want to be the guinea pigs and try a live event and have things not go so well,” then programming director Nick Pope said at the time.

And in late July, the Kansas State Fair board made the decision to cancel that year’s event, just two months before it was set to take place.

For everything that happened in 2020, a lot more didn’t happen: No gatherings. No concerts. No festivals.

But that’s all coming back this fall.

Jon Huber
KMUW/File photo

Walnut Valley Festival executive director Bart Redford said he feels “nervous” ahead of this year’s in-person event, which starts Sept. 15 in Winfield. But it’s not too far off the usual nerves he feels any other year.

“I know a lot of people are really excited about it. I know a lot of people are ready for it,” he said. “I know that entertainers are really excited about getting on stage and doing their thing and getting that reaction from the crowd.

“So, on the whole, I'm feeling pretty good about doing this.”

Last year’s festival was entirely virtual. Redford said he and other organizers decided this spring that it would be safe to come back in person this year — a vaccine was out, and COVID-19 numbers were down.

But the spread of the more contagious delta variant has sent numbers up again: In April, Cowley County was seeing one or two new cases a day. By August, it was seeing as many as 23.

“When things sort of changed, we definitely changed our strategy,” Redford said.

That strategy emphasizes personal responsibility. The festival partnered with the county health department to hold some vaccine campaigns over the summer. At the festival, masks and social distancing will be encouraged in indoor spaces, but not required.

“We had the benefit of seeing how other festivals sort of handled this, and we saw some festivals that basically just ignored it,” Redford said. “And other festivals that it seemed like made the entire event about COVID.

“And we kind of decided that we wanted to pursue a middle course … that middle-of-the-road path.”

That’s the approach a lot of festivals are taking: No mandates, just organizers hoping that attendees use common sense.

Open Streets ICT is returning this year with fewer vendors, no concerts and no games, like in past years. The city said it’s encouraging masks and social distancing, but that “Open Streets would happen outdoors which would help reduce transmission concerns somewhat.”

The State Fair is recommending masking indoors. A representative said organizers are still watching case numbers and will make final decisions about health measures closer to the fair’s start.

That fluidity has made planning a festival – not an easy task to begin with – even more challenging.

Melanie Addington
Melanie Addington

“Event planning in any normal year is about the safety and wellness of your patrons, but also your staff and your volunteers,” said Melanie Addington, executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association. “And this is just one more added element to all the things that keep you up at night.”

After going virtual last year, organizers decided to go forward with an in-person festival, but masks will be required indoors and seating will be spaced out.

“We may have allowed full capacity if things had stayed more like June numbers,” Addington said. “So we're just, you know, making sure if something gets even worse, we'll obviously revisit what we're doing.

“But as of right now, we're pretty comfortable with the plans we have.”

The festival is also offering a virtual streaming option for anyone not comfortable being out in a crowd. Which raises the question: Even though you can go, should you?

Sedgwick County Health Director Adrienne Byrne
Carla Eckels
KMUW/File photo
Sedgwick County Health Director Adrienne Byrne

Sedgwick County Health Director Adrienne Byrne said there are risks to weigh, for both festival organizers and attendees.

“It depends upon how big the event is,” she said. “If it's relatively small, it's easier to have mitigation steps. You know, it's easier to reduce some of the risks, but the larger, the gathering, the more risk that there's going to be.”

Byrne said festival organizers have contacted her department for advice on how to lessen the chance of COVID-19 spreading.

“If we’re going to hold these events, because everyone still wants to do things…how could we do this safely?” she said.

“It is going to come down to the event planners and organizers deciding how much risk that they want to take on.”

Byrne said there’s good motivation for organizers to implement health protocols: the news release the county would have to send out if a COVID-19 case is linked to an event and the health department can’t investigate through contact tracing alone.

“When there’s a place where there’s lots of people coming and going and we’re not able to identify all the contacts that were around this person …. then we do a press release that says, ‘If you were at this location on this or this date, between this time, please contact the health department because you may have been exposed to COVID.’

“That makes it real for some of the organizers because no one wants to have their event connected to an outbreak.”

Byrne said she’s anxious this year will be a repeat of last year, when, as expected, an increase in indoor activity and more gatherings around the holidays led to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

But Addington, with the Tallgrass Film Association, said she’s confident that by following CDC and local health guidelines, they can put on a safe festival and help get back “to a sense of normal in this new pandemic world.”

“I’ve been very cognizant that this is not something that’s going away in the next week,” she said. “So we need to find protocols and ways to still be a community, but do it safely.”