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.

Santa Clarita, California

In Santa Clarita, Calif., located north of Los Angeles, events are moving ahead as planned.

"The city has a communications team that the events team works with to develop all the marketing plans for events. Over the last year the majority of our marketing has moved to more of the digital platform to continue to reach a large audience that might not be going out in the public as much. Throughout 2020 and 2021 we have seen an increase with our online marketing programs. Events continue to be well attended, fun and successful," said David Knutson, events administrator for the city of Santa Clarita.

In July and August, Santa Clarita produced its annual Concerts in the Park series, a free, eight-week-long series of outdoor concerts.

"When staff began to plan, there [were] several restrictions to live events happening in Los Angeles County and the state of California. However, approximately three weeks prior to the series kicking off, all restrictions were lifted by the county and state," Knutson said. "This allowed us to remove all protocols that had been planned. While our typical crowds are somewhere between 8,000 [and] 9,000 weekly, we did see a decrease in attendance to around 4,500 to 6,000 each week. Overall, we never received any complaints or concerns from the citizens."

For future events scheduled in Santa Clarita, "The city is moving forward with all events as business as usual, as there are currently no protocols in place that affect any city events. We are always constantly looking for updates from the county or state," he said. "Right now, the only event protocol is for mega events with over 10,000 people."

Lake Forest Parks and Recreation

In Lake Forest, Ill., the city successfully carried out its scheduled events this summer, including Fourth of July festivities as well as a music festival in August.

"Our first course of action is to make sure that we are in accordance with all Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and Centers for Disease Control guidance when it comes to hosting festivals during the pandemic. This summer we operated in Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois Plan, which removed occupancy requirements for this grouping. For ticketed events, such as the Fourth of July Festival and Fireworks and our Lake Forest Music Fest, we focused on the ease of online ticket purchasing," said John Eldridge, CPRP, recreation program manager of early childhood education, cultural arts and special events, Lake Forest Parks and Recreation Department.

"Attendees could not only purchase an entry ticket, but also VIP passes, family passes and parking passes all online. This drastically reduced the number of day-of-ticket sales, lines and handling of cash. Events were held outdoors and allowed for necessary social distancing," he said.

The Fourth of July Festival and Fireworks, as always, was "held outdoors at the largest park, square-footage-wise, in Lake Forest," he said. "Our site map was developed in order to maximize lawn space so that attendees could spread out their picnic areas. Much of our online sales were encouraged to be done online before the day of the event. This cut down on the lines, day of. We also have multiple ticket lines which allowed for groups to spread out."

For the Lake Forest Music Fest, it was "Much of the same from our Fourth of July," Eldridge said. "We utilized two parking lots to provide more space. We had two stages so that attendees could spread out. We offered all-access passes to reduce the need for standing in lines to buy additional tickets."

As the weather gradually gets colder in Illinois, Eldridge noted that going forward there might be a need to move more popular events, such as Halloween and Christmas, indoors.

"However, our first goal is to be outside if and when able," he said. "Registration is required for all events, even when there is no fee to attend. This will allow us to keep track of the number of attendees. Masks will be required regardless of vaccination status when indoors.

"We also have various contingency plans in the event that restrictions tighten up and we need to switch to having more strict occupancy levels or move things to a contactless event," he added. "In all cases, we will always lean on IDPH and CDC guidance."

Chatham County, North Carolina

The plan in Chatham County, N.C., is for events to be held in-person.

"Plan A for our fall events include outside and in-person gatherings, based on guidelines from our local health department. Plan B would be to switch to a drive-through event. We are prepared to move forward with either version of our events this fall," said Mallory Peterson, program supervisor, Chatham County government, parks and recreation.

In terms of how Chatham County is managing the safety and marketing of events to ensure they are successful, Peterson said that "We are currently marketing all our fall events and programs with a clause that states: 'COVID 19: All programs and events are subject to change and will follow the required restrictions and mandates of federal, state and local officials.' Events are marketed so the community knows they will take place outside and that we are prepared to switch to Plan B if necessary.

"All of our events in fall 2020 to spring 2021 were hosted as a drive-through event. Participants stayed in their vehicles the entire time and drove around to different stations to collect goodies and handouts. Volunteers and other community groups helping pass out materials wore masks and gloves to minimize contact," she noted. "This summer we offered a modified in-person summer camp program, and an outdoor Movie in the Park series. Additionally throughout the year, we offer asynchronous programming such as fitness challenges, story walks, scavenger hunts and more."

Last year's Holiday in the Park in Chatham County was hosted as a Holly Jolly Drive-Thru. "Participants got to view Christmas lights, collect a craft, reindeer food, a candy cane, handouts from other local organizations and had the opportunity to wave at Santa and give him a letter," she said.

This year, however, the plan is to have an in-person Holiday in the Park, but, if necessary, another drive-through would be hosted. Planned activities include holiday-themed crafts and games, pictures with Santa, tree lighting, and more.

In addition, there also are plans to host an in-person Trunk or Treat Fall Festival. Peterson said the event also would be modified to a drive-through, if necessary. Scheduled activities include pumpkin carving/pumpkin painting, Halloween-themed games and crafts and more.

The Colorado State Fair

This year's state fair in Pueblo, Colo., which was held from Aug. 27 through Sept. 6, offered a variety of entertainment and things to do and see for fairgoers.

Scott Stoller, the fair's general manager, said that the Colorado State Fair was working closely with the CDPHE and the Pueblo Department of Health and Environment to ensure safety at the fair. "We continue to coordinate with public health officials and follow the most current guidance for both indoor and outdoor events," he said.

This year, the fair put a focus on holding more events outside, with visitors being strongly encouraged to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. It also was strongly suggested for everyone to wear masks outside, if they were unable to socially distance.

"Additionally, we have offered a generous refund policy for all ticket holders in the lead-up to the fair, in case their plans have changed, and will also have free face masks onsite to anyone who needs one," Stoller said.

What's more, Coloradans were being encouraged to receive the COVID vaccine. One of Colorado's nine mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinics was present at the state fair from Aug. 27 to 29 and again from Sept. 3 to 6.

"The vaccination bus offers gift cards as incentives to those who get vaccinated. Anyone 12 and up is eligible for vaccination at the mobile clinics," Stoller said, adding that both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were available. RM



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