A cloud remains over summer festivals

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Instead of running for 10 days straight, this year’s Lilac Festival offers its attractions for three consecutive weekends. (Photo by Mike Costanza)

Aah, the festivals of summer! Enjoying good food, music and the works of artists and artisans while hobnobbing with friends outdoors can make the dreary winter months fade into memory—and put money into local communities. 

“Every penny earned for our event goes back into the community to support other nonprofits, (and) fund community events and other village economic endeavors,” says Ed Bradford, chair of the Fairport Canal Days Committee, the nearly all-volunteer nonprofit that organizes and runs Fairport Canal Days. 

The festival, Fairport’s largest annual event, can generate as much as $80,000 for Bradford’s nonprofit committee, and a great deal more revenue for businesses throughout the Rochester area.

That’s in a normal year.

With the community still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021—like 2020—is hardly a normal year. As of last week, Bradford wasn’t sure that Fairport’s summer festival would be able to start as scheduled on June 5. Government inaction, coupled with confusion regarding the standards for running a large public event during the pandemic, left Bradford and his team wondering whether to pull the plug on Canal Days for the second year in a row. Another cancellation could risk the future of an event that first delighted visitors 46 years ago.

Pandemic blues

Like Fairport Canal Days, festivals across Monroe County have suffered mightily at the hands of the pandemic. The Park Avenue Summer Art Festival, the Corn Hill Arts Festival, the Lilac Festival and many other colorful elements of Monroe County’s summer scene also were canceled last year.

The pandemic has receded in Monroe County to the point that large gatherings are allowed again, but the difficulties of safely holding their events led the organizers of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Corn Hill Arts Festival and a number of other important events to cancel them again this year. Some festivals will feature fewer in-person attractions, be offered in a hybrid format or be held completely online. How much money they’ll earn for the communities that host them is yet to be seen.

Those who organize local festivals have sometimes struggled to determine and interpret the state Health Department’s rules for holding such events safely during the pandemic. 

“The rules have been changing, as they should as the pandemic eases,” says Jeff Springut, the founder, president and CEO of the Springut Group, which produces the Lilac Festival. 

Responding to the progress New York communities have made against the virus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that effective April 2, “small and medium-scale performing arts and entertainment venues” could reopen at up to 33 percent of capacity. Indoor venues could admit no more than 100 persons at a time, and outdoor venues could top out at 200. If all present can submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test or of complete immunization against the virus, the attendance limits rise to 150 people for indoor venues and 250 for outdoor events.

Cuomo’s announcement did not clearly define “small and medium-scale performing arts and entertainment venues,” or mention festivals at all. A request to state Department of Health on the coronavirus safety standards for festivals didn’t clarify matters.

“As more people become vaccinated and as our positivity rates remain low, guidance is being updated for various activities to allow New Yorkers to get back to doing the things they enjoy,” Health Department spokesperson Erin Silk says. “The department continues to review capacity guidelines for outdoor festivals and other events as part of our phased-in approach to reopening New York and planning can be done now using existing guidance, in consultation with local governments.”

The governor recently announced that the limits on outdoor “social gatherings” would increase to 500 people on May 10, and that for indoor gatherings it will rise to 250 on May 19. Again, “social gatherings” were not defined clearly.

On May 5, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and county Commissioner of Public Health Michael Mendoza M.D.addressed some of the concerns regarding local festivals. Mendoza admitted that the state’s instructions regarding public events could be clearer.

“There really hasn’t been any unified guidance that really addresses festivals,” he says.  

Members of his department are working with festival organizers to help them interpret the state’s guidelines, and hold their events safely.

“I do think that we can work within the guidance to make a lot of these festivals very, very possible here in Monroe County,” Mendoza says.

Bello encourages county residents to attend outdoor events, as long as they do it safely.

“Being outdoors we know to be much safer than indoors,” Bello says. “To the extent that people are either vaccinated and/or wearing their masks, I think we can feel relatively well-assured that being outdoors doesn’t present very much of a risk at all.”

Dealing with rules

The lack of clarity in the state Health Department’s guidelines for holding gatherings during the pandemic forced Springut to jump through a few hoops.

“I was dealing with Monroe County, who was dealing with the state,” he says. “We didn’t get the final approvals from everybody until about five or six weeks ago.”

The Lilac Festival that opened on May 7 is very different from those of the past. 

“We had an option a few months ago to either cancel the festival altogether or to try and do some partial forms of the events that we typically do that would comply with the state (regulations), and keep everybody safe,” Springut says. 

Instead of running for 10 days straight, this year’s Lilac Festival offers its attractions for just three consecutive weekends. The main events, wine and craft beer tastings and musical performances, will be held in a 317-seat tent. Attendees can buy tickets in groups of four to six people. All will be asked to maintain social distancing, and wear masks when not seated.

Art in the Park, the festival’s juried art show, is also set up to meet coronavirus safety regulations.

“There’s a 10- to 11-foot space between each artist,” Springut says. 

To accommodate the changes, the current exposition features the works of about 70 artists from around the county. By contrast, about 160 offered their wares at the 2019 Arts in the Park. Only a limited number of people will be able to attend the exposition at one time, and everyone will be asked to wear masks. 

The Lilac Festival also features small kiddie parks complete with rides, five- and 10-K races, a mini-farmer’s market, and of course, Highland Park and its sweet lilacs. 

An uncertain season

Springut would not hazard a guess as to how many people might come out to enjoy Monroe County’s biggest annual outdoor event this year.

“My crystal ball is cloudy,” he says. “If the weather is nice, people are going to come to the festival.”

Past Lilac Festivals have drawn as many as 500,000 people to Highland Park, and generated as much as $5 million in revenue for the Rochester area. 

In 2019, about 20,000 people headed to the gallery’s University Avenue campus to view the works of over 400 artists. 

The M&T Bank Clothesline Festival is on for September, but those organizing it aren’t sure whether it will be entirely live or partially online.

“We have to apply to the standards of what the state is requiring at that time,” says Meg Colombo, communications manager for the Memorial Art Gallery, which hosts the show each year on the first weekend after Labor Day. “We are making our final decision on Aug. 1.”

That decision will deeply affect how much money that MAG’s biggest annual fundraiser brings in. In 2019, about 20,000 people headed to the gallery’s University Avenue campus to view the works of over 400 artists. 

“When the festival is in-person on the main grounds, we celebrate the artists and (have) live music, lots of festival foods,” Colombo says.

Vendors’ fees and the money from tickets brought the festival’s take to $188,000 that year. The cash was used to help pay some of MAG’s operating costs.

After COVID hit, the Clothesline went virtual. Only 297 artists participated in the 2020 festival, which pulled in $41,277 in donations.

This year, the Clothesline hopes to go live again, but in a form that limits the risk of spreading COVID. About 400 vendors will offer their artistic works on the gallery’s grounds, which are normally fenced off for the festival. 

“It will be easy for us to control how many people are coming in,” Colombo says.

By limiting the number of people on the campus at one time, the festival’s organizers will be able to make sure that visitors can maintain social distancing. 

“We will be able to meet the (state’s) standard,” Colombo says.

When asked how much the Clothesline might earn this year, Colombo would only say that she hoped it would generate “somewhere in between” the amounts it took in in 2019 and 2020. 

“We will have the festival, no matter what,” she says.

Mix of approaches

Erica Fee (Photo: Matt DeTurck)

The organizers of the annual KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival turned to a variety of sources for guidance on running this year’s event.

“We work with event safety experts, the state, the county, the city, and I read extensively,” says Erica Fee, founding Fringe Festival producer.

The 2020 Fringe featured 170 virtual productions, plus two independently produced works from the Memory Palace, a storytelling podcast. This year’s festival will be a hybrid.

“We can’t wait to celebrate our 10th anniversary with both an in-person, local audience as well as an online, global one,” Fee announced on April 2.

Fee was unable to say what this year’s Fringe will feature—the festival is some months off—or how much it might benefit the Rochester area economically. The festival is scheduled to run Sept. 14-25.

After being forced to cancel last year, Imagine RIT returned on May 1, but only online.

“We still wanted people to participate in Imagine,” says Ann Miller, the director of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s annual festival. “We felt like the best option to keep everyone save … was to go virtual.”

Ann Miller

The one-day event showcases the creativity and skills of RIT’s students, faculty and staff. 

“Imagine RIT inspires the next generation of problem solvers by connecting people to the wonders of science, technology, engineering, math, design, business, health sciences, the liberal arts, and the art,” Miller says.

Though they were denied the chance to show their stuff to visitors in person this year, more of those who live far from the university’s Henrietta campus were able to participate in the festival. RIT also has campuses overseas, including those in such far-flung places as China, Dubai and Croatia.

“It’s allowed all of those students to engage this year,” Miller says.

This year’s exhibits included static displays and websites that allowed visitors to manipulate digital devices.

“Some of the engineering students were able to build models that you can interact with on a virtual platform,” Miller says.

About 30,000 people headed to the RIT campus for Imagine in 2019. Miller hoped that more would visit the festival virtually this year.

“Thousands of visitors tuned in on May 1 to see the exhibits, and many more viewed videos each day since their debuts,” she says. 

After having to cancel its 2020 festival, the Park Avenue Revitalization Committee came together in January to begin considering whether to hold its biggest event this year. 

“We knew that by April that we would have to make a determination whether to move forward or cancel the festival,” says Lisa Hubler, the committee’s communications and event director.

Committee members turned to Rochester officials for help determining how they could make sure the festival, which is usually held over two days in early August, met state Health Department COVID safety standards.

Lisa Hubler

“Getting real, hands-on documentation from the state—it was complicated,” Hubler says.

The festival’s setting and size posed their own problems. About 400 artists, artisans and food vendors usually sign up to offer their wares at the festival, which occupies a mile and a half of Park Avenue. Multiple side streets can feed as many as 100,000 people onto the street before the event ends.

“Managing the amount of people is just a complication that we couldn’t achieve,” Hubler says.

Hubler couldn’t say how much the Revitalization Committee would have earned from the Park Avenue Festival this year, since the Springut Group ran the event until 2019 and it was canceled in 2020. The money would have been turned over to the Park-Meigs Neighborhood Association and the Park Avenue Merchants Association to be used to beautify Park Avenue, and hold events on the street. 

“The Merchants Association uses a portion of that money … to put on our Holiday Open House, which is our gift to the community,” Hubler says. “We have choirs on all the streets.”

As for Fairport Canal Days, Bradford and his committee had to navigate through a host of challenges.

“I’ve probably wanted to cancel a half a dozen times,” he says.

Several weeks ago, the committee submitted to the state its strategy for safely holding the festival during the pandemic. The detailed plan included crowd control measures, instructions for maintaining social distancing, regimes for disinfecting surfaces and other elements that are designed to reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus. As of May 7, the deadline the organizers set for deciding whether to hold Canal Days, the state Health Department had not made its decision.

“The regional rep for the state Health Department said, ‘Normally, I’ve got one person who has to sign off on it, but with COVID-19, I have 38,’” Bradford notes. 

In addition, the festival’s organizers erroneously believed that in order to be able to hold Canal Days, they needed Monroe County’s health department to sign off on their crowd control plan for the festival.

Jason Kaluza, building inspector and fire marshal for the village of Fairport, calculated that the site for Canal Days could accommodate up to 15,000 people at one time and meet state standards. The county Health Department came back with a maximum of roughly 2,000 people.

“We can’t hold the event financially with 2,000 people,” Bradford says.

In previous years Fairport’s Canal Days has in the past has attracted as many as 200,000 people.

Canceling for the second time in a row could also have seriously affected the future of Canal Days. Artists, artisans, food vendors and others who have depended upon the festival as a source of income might decide to look elsewhere for places to offer their wares.

“When you consider all of the money that changes hands from the event, we believe the economic impact is at least $1 million in a normal year,” Bradford says.

As the deadline for a decision loomed, Bradford called Bello’s office for help. County officials reached out to the state. On Monday, Bradford received written state approval for the plan for Canal Days. The county and Kaluza thrashed out their differences regarding Canal Days’ maximum attendance as well, agreeing on a capacity of 12,000.

Still, there was one last hurdle: approval from Fairport’s Board of Trustees. The board approved it in a 6-0 vote.

This year’s Canal Days will be a scaled-back version of the event that in the past has attracted as many as 200,000 people to Fairport in just two and a half days. The bridge over the village’s section of the Erie Canal remains under reconstruction, so Canal Days can occupy only about half of Main Street, plus some of its contiguous areas. 

Visitors and local folks will be able to peruse the works of about 115 artists and craftspeople, nosh at food stalls and in village restaurants, and enjoy small musical performances—no big concerts this year. 

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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