Feature Article - November 2021
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Getting Back Together

Events Get Back on Track, With Safety Front & Center

By Deborah Vence


A glistening fireworks display in the night sky, the sound of live music echoing over a crowd's cheers and the robust aromas of popcorn, funnel cakes and cotton candy are what many of us associate with the summer season, and gladly what people were able to enjoy once again as events and festivals were back in action this year for many communities—all with the essential safety measures in place.

Getting things back to normal was the goal this year after the emergence of COVID-19 last year caused a lot of chaos and uncertainty, and, ultimately, forced the cancellation of many events. Even now, the constantly changing landscape is making it imperative for communities to keep a watchful eye on the pandemic and make adjustments to planned events, large or small, as necessary.

Steve Schmader, CFEE, president and CEO of the International Festivals & Events Association (IFEA), pointed out that the new COVID variants (Delta and Mu) that came about this summer put everyone back into a state of uncertainty. "Planning is difficult," he said, "given the uncertainty and 'super spreader' impact by so many large events that have already occurred.

"Both events and cities and municipalities [are] torn between wanting to provide a sense of normalcy for their residents and visitors, plus needing the financial infusion (especially for those who have lost a year or more of their primary income streams), and operating in a reality with still half of the country unvaccinated and many hospitals and health care systems in crisis mode."

As far as planning for future events, it's "highly cautionary and with many different levels of planning and options, dependent on changing realities," Schmader said.

"The impact of COVID on sponsors, volunteers, vendors and suppliers, staffing, insurance coverage, city services, et al., has everyone operating in an all-new world," he said. "The leading events are maximizing their exchanges (often through industry associations, like the IFEA) with their professional peers, to stay abreast of rapidly changing conditions, resource availability, creative responses, etc."

He also said that "For those who are opening or happening, events are taking every precaution mandated by local and national health authorities and government entities. But, because every city and state can have very different rules as to what is acceptable, or allowed, there are no across-the-board templates."

The addition of new safety protocols (such as hand sanitizer stations, temperature checks, safe distancing messaging and signage, mask provision, vaccination proof/test result checks, touchless payment transactions, etc.) to protect against COVID-19 have added new expenses and human resource needs and training, too, that did not exist before. As a result, in addition to potentially lower attendance and revenue, there are increased expenses that need to be considered and managed.

"The key to safe and successful events (of those who have been able/allowed to open at any level) has been, primarily, effective messaging and education of all potential attendees and participants, before, during and after the events," Schmader said. "Setting clear expectations and then enforcing those expectations as best can be done within localized health and political allowances."

For sure, the demand for gathering and celebrating is possibly greater than ever before. But, there are no "best practices" to use as guidance. "Because many or most park district events are funded through a larger city budget, some of their financial challenges and concerns may be less stressful than that of independent events, although not necessarily," he added.

By implementing the right safety measures and being aware that anything can change at a moment's notice, many communities effectively took steps forward this year to bring back some of their annual events.