Fairs, festivals focus on safety

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

             Will there be festivals and fairs across Michigan this summer?

            While many events, big and small, have already been canceled or postponed because of health concerns stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak, organizers of annual gatherings later in the summer are taking a wait-and-see attitude before making scheduling decisions.

 “We’re staying optimistic,” said Mike Szukhent, president and CEO of the Michigan Festivals and Events Association. “The landscape is changing by the minute ... It’s hard for anyone to make a decision right now, but my recommendation is to start thinking about what we can do to protect each other. We can’t do what we did last year or what we’ve done for the last 20 years. It’s time to think out of the box.”

Still on the calendar -- at this point -- are big summer events like the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, the National Blueberry Festival in South Haven, Woodward Dream Cruise, the Michigan State Fair, and the Soaring Eagle Arts, Beats and Eats in Royal Oak, and the Detroit Jazz Festival. Some festival organizers plan to reevaluate their event status in early June.

A classic car trails a blur of headlights while cruising Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak Friday night, August 16, 2019 before Saturday's Woodward Dream Cruise.   The Woodward Dream Cruise is the world's largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the globe.

An announcements regarding the status of Ford Fireworks, which draws about 1 million people to the Detroit riverfront every June, is expected soon.

River Days, a festival of entertainment, family-fun activities and food along the Detroit River, will not take place as planned in June, but the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has not yet made a decision whether to reschedule or cancel entirely for this year.

            “I’m hearing fewer events from Aug. 1 forward are being canceled,” said David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan. “I’m thankful more and more festivals and events for August and beyond are doing their best to stay in a holding pattern. They’re waiting to see what the possibilities will be. It’s a long way out from some of those events.”

Among the biggest cancellations to date have been the Ann Arbor Art Fair, Festival of the Arts in Grand Rapids, the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, the Traverse City Film Festival, and the Tulip Time Festival in Holland, which would have marked its 91st celebration this month. Each of those events draw hundreds of thousands of people and generate millions of dollars in tourist spending.

Select events of the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival, held in June, have been canceled, but some community-based events, such as the annual Lilac Queen Coronation, will go on. Some festivals are offering virtual versions of activities and contests.

The decision to cancel any festival or fair depends on the organization, Szukhent said, adding the variables are many and include the financial obligations of entertainment contracts, which are often signed weeks in advance. Most festivals are run by non-profit organizations and they cannot afford to absorb those kinds of losses.

In some cases, smaller gatherings, such as Motor City Pride and Ferndale Pride, traditionally held in June, have been postponed or rescheduled. Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival, slated for Memorial Day weekend, has been rescheduled for Sept. 11-13.

Dearborn’s Greenfield Village, which hosts several events throughout the summer, has canceled Civil War Remembrance, Motor Muster, Maker Faire Detroit, as well as Historic Base Ball and the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball. The popular Day Out With Thomas has been rescheduled to the last weeks of July.  The village’s signature weekend programs attract about 20,000 people over two days.

The Henry Ford is evaluating the status of its annual Salute to America, its Independence Day celebration with performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and its Old Car Festival, which takes place the second weekend in September. 

Organizers of summer events still on the books are exploring ways to improve public health and safety, while waiting to hear whether festivals will be allowed by state and local governments. Their intent is to follow the guidelines of federal, state and local officials, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

            “We will maintain a keen focus on the health and safety of our global community.  All decisions impacting the Detroit Jazz Festival will be mandated by local, state and federal authorities.  If any changes become necessary, we will notify everyone immediately,” the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation said in a statement. The traditional Labor Day event attracted about 300,000 people last year.

            Another Labor Day tradition, Royal Oak’s Arts Beats and Eats, remains on the calendar, with organizers exploring safety measures and protocols to follow. About 300,000 people attended last year’s four-day event, which features live music and other performances, a juried art show and also showcases some of the region’s best restaurants.

            “We are still hopeful that a version of Arts, Beats & Eats can occur and we will continue to monitor what is happening with the virus and testing and, if we move forward, we would be making some significant safety and program adjustments," said Jon Witz, producer of the event, whose primary sponsor is Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort. "We are also looking at a postpone option as well as accepting the possibility that we may have to cancel.”

            Public safety is the primary concern. Witz said he has been in discussions with other festival organizers to explore ways to implement new health safety measures and share best practices. From those conversations, participants have realized how important festivals and entertainment events are to jobs and small business, quality of life, the creative community and non-profit organizations. Witz said it's worth investigating all efforts to adjust operations and move forward with these events if they can be safely programmed and operated.

            “If we do move forward, we are looking to operate in the safest way possible,” he said. “It’ll be no different than a gym, casino or restaurant trying to open. Everyone who brings people together is going to have to look at strategies to keep people safe.”

            Besides wearing masks and practicing social distance, festival goers are likely to experience vast changes at festivals. Among the protocols being by explored by various event organizers:

* Limiting attendance

* Adding more space to host festivals

* Additional seating areas with more social distancing

* Testing, if available, to access music areas

* Requiring reservations

* Altering hours

* Curtailing the number of vendors

* Spreading out vendor booths

* Increasing hand sanitizer stations

* Eliminating at-gate ticket purchases (online only)

* Setting up one-way paths

  * Health screenings

 * Surveying patrons to learn additional concerns and actions that could create comfort level and enhanced safety

            Michigan is home to more than 5,000 festivals and events each year, and they’re a significant part of the state’s $24.7 billion tourism industry. Szukhent said the economic impact goes well beyond admission and vendor sales. Local festivals impact grocery stores, restaurants, bars, party stores and gas stations. Additionally, festivals provide $11 million annually to various charities.

            “Festivals and events lift our spirits,” Travel Michigan’s Lorenz said. “There is an understated impact that festivals have on our communities. They give communities the opportunity to stand back and reflect on what makes their community special. They make people proud of their communities.”

            Many communities across the state are going without those special events this season because of the outbreak. The cancellations include well-established festivals such as the Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff in St. Joseph and Detroit’s Palmer Park Art Fair, and the Leland Wine Festival, the oldest in the state. Many communities have cancelled fairs, outdoor concerts and other events scheduled for May, June and July.

“Even losing a community festival for one year is a pretty big hit to a community,” Lorenz said. “The value of bringing people together for a cause can’t be overstated. They’re so important to bring us together.”

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Melody Baetens contributed