Feature Article - November 2020
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Event Management in a Pandemic

Planning & Budgeting for Uncertain Times

By Chris Gelbach


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the cancelation of a tremendous number of events in 2020, but that doesn't mean we'll never get together for fun and recreational events again. Unfortunately, the questions of when that will be, and what those events will look like, remain largely unanswered.

"It is not an exaggeration to point out that all live events were the first ones to be closed down in the second week of March and unfortunately our industry will be the last to reopen after everybody else because it's more difficult to do social distancing at any kind of live event. It just is," said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance and the head of Adelman Law Group, PLLC.

Adelman noted that entities like park districts can hold events like concerts in the park and drive-in movies. And it's easy to do things like paint socially distanced circles into the grass and get people to stay there for most of the event.

"The problem is people are going to be moving, they're going to be circulating during the event. They're going to have to get to their circle. They're going to have to get to the restrooms. They're going to have to get to any concessions that may be allowed to reopen," Adelman said.

And when patrons aren't in their chalk-striped circle or sitting comfortably in their vehicle, the event resembles a general admission event. "And regular general admission events are very, very hard during a pandemic because you can't maintain social distancing," Adelman said. "And that's why most events haven't been allowed to reopen."

Driving In, Driving Through

New York City, which was brutally hit by the initial wave of the pandemic but now sports test positivity rates much lower than the rest of the country, has remained cautious in returning to producing and permitting events. According to Anthony Sama, director of citywide special events for NYC Parks, a cap of 50 people for outdoor events has been extended through Dec. 1.

While Sama has seen some events in the city incorporating things like the drive-in format Adelman mentioned, he noted that some of the events have adopted no-touch reservation experiences not only for concessions but also for holding a place in a restroom line without having to physically wait near others.

"Obviously, right now, the purpose that serves is to keep people in their cars at drive-ins so we don't have too many people outside their cars moving around or waiting in lines for something," Sama said. "But even under normal circumstances, I think that's a creative solution to a problem that can be leveraged."

In Louisville, the Louisville Parks Foundation's popular Jack O'Lantern Spectacular, which features more than 5,000 carved pumpkins illuminated at night as an art show, is normally a walkable event through the city's Iroquois Park. This year, it has been transformed into a drive-through event.

Brooke Pardue, president and CEO of the Louisville Parks Foundation, noted that this shift for the event's eighth year was not as daunting as it might have been, since the foundation debuted a similar holiday-themed event called Winter Woods Spectacular last year. Also in Iroquois Park, that event was created with a drive-through format due to the colder winter weather.

"The biggest concern [for the fall event] was moving from a per person price to a per car price, and we will certainly see our income drop because of the change," Pardue said. "That said, we thought it was important to do everything we could to host this fall family favorite, even during a global pandemic, if for no other reason than the mental health of our fans."

Even when it's necessary to dramatically change events for safety, and when they may not be as profitable, they can often still be structured to serve a social good. For example, while the Jack O'Lantern Spectacular will not serve food or concessions this year, it will offer a way to help the community as a drop-off location for #FeedTheWest, a local community food justice initiative.

Go Small or Stay Home

For 2020, the Big Apple has already canceled the in-person elements of things like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and New Year's Eve at Times Square, which will exist as virtual productions only.

At this time, it is allowing only approved outdoor events in its parks of less than 50 people, with the additional stipulation that all events must also sign a safety plan affirmation.

"This is a checklist of about 20 to 30 different things people can do in terms of adding hand sanitizer at their events, keeping track of event attendees [for contact tracing purposes], making sure their staff has been kept safe, and providing PPE for attendees who may not have it," Sama said.

The city has also introduced limitations to further discourage small events from growing into larger ones. According to Sama, this includes prohibiting vehicles coming into the parks to facilitate event production so that only hand-carried items are permitted.

It also includes strict limits on amplification. "We are allowing amplified sound at our events," Sama said. "We're just being much more cautious in terms of the spaces where that amplified sound is being used as to not draw a large crowd."

Sama noted that the city has begun issuing permits for things like barbecues, family gatherings, weddings and certain approved athletic activities. It has also been working with cultural institutions on smaller events like pop-up performances and spoken-word performances.

The city also hosted its first recent event by the New York Road Runners in September in Central Park, which Sama noted are known by city residents as typically being large events hosting 5,000 people or more. The initial post-pandemic event instead featured 200 runners, with four waves of 50 runners so there was never more than 50 people participating at any one time.

"We're trying to bring programming back into our parks in as safe and low-impact a way as possible while ensuring that our parks continue to serve the important role they have throughout this pandemic to provide a respite for our residents from their apartments, from their homes, to be able to get out and recreate in a safe space," Sama said.

As the city budget is assaulted by the pandemic, the inability to hold large events has allowed New York to focus its limited spending on maintaining its parks for this core purpose. It also keeps residents more comfortable with using the parks as an outdoor escape. "There's a very large cross-section of people who are still not comfortable being around large groups or even seeing a large group of people congregating for any reason," Sama said.

In this environment, Sama is seeing some cultural groups use park spaces for more intimate entertainment options such as the New York Philharmonic's Bandwagon pop-up concerts featuring masked performers and a pickup truck. Another group of musicians has even started a program that allows an individual or small group to meet a violinist, cellist or other musician for a short one-on-one performance.

This kind of opportunity not only allows musicians to engage with their most dedicated patrons, but also gives nearby park patrons an opportunity to enjoy some music without attracting a large crowd.