COVID-19 shakes up festival season


Festivals are staples of Dubois County summers.

Held annually from May through September, the gatherings serve as big fundraiser opportunities, activity-filled bashes and a reminder of how tight-knit the communities are in their slices of Southwestern Indiana.

This year, however, will be different.

A couple of fests have already been called off, and at least one more cancellation or postponement could be coming. The Herald spoke to organizers of a few summer festivals for this story to get a sampling of how they are moving forward.

Though some events have pulled back, one county fest still aims to push ahead and remain locked into its dates. Kim Lottes, chairperson of the Jasper Strassenfest, explained that leadership hopes to keep its busy weekend on schedule.

The German heritage celebration is set to run from Thursday, July 30, through Sunday, Aug. 2. Before officially green-lighting the festival, organizers are seeking a final blessing from Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide and Jo Ann Spaulding, the administrative director of the Dubois County Health Department.

If those leaders sign off on the fest when they meet with Strassenfest representatives later this month, the popular event will remain on track. An ultimate decision will be announced no later than June 1. It is estimated that about 35,000 people attend the gathering.

Gov. Eric Holcomb detailed Friday how the state would begin reopening in a five-stage format during the next two months. The final stage of the timeline, which is scheduled to begin on July 4, allows for social gatherings of more than 250 people to take place, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines. It is at this time that conventions, sports events, fairs, festivals, the state fair and other like events are permitted to resume.

In an email, Lottes wrote that due to the size and scope of Strassenfest, organizers need to take their lead from the city’s mayor and county health department. Much of the planning, bookings, reservations and the like are done very early in the year, Lottes explained in another message, so at this point, leadership is planning on keeping the fest “as normal as possible.”

“We looked at a lot of different options,” Lottes said in a phone interview. “Postponing it and such would have been very difficult.” Planning the Strassenfest is like a locomotive — it can’t be stopped on a dime, she said.

But everything is up for discussion at the group’s next committee meeting, taking into consideration feedback received from Vonderheide and Spaulding. Organizers are also discussing additional safety precautions that can be taken, such as having masks available for sale, developing protocols for the food booths, providing additional handwashing stations and so on.

Other fests are taking a different approach. Though some of its events will still take place, this year’s Ferdinand Heimatfest, for example, has been canceled, and the Haysville Ruritan Sommerfest has also been called off — though it could be rescheduled.

Members of the Ruritan Club who organize Sommerfest decided last week to cancel their fest, which was slated to take place during the second weekend of July. The door is still open, however, for it to be held at a future date.

“The way I understand it is we’re going to just cancel it at this point,” Bryant Kieffner, a Ruritan member, said Monday. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not a postponement somewhere.”

He expressed attendance worries and also spoke of scheduling conflicts that could make it tough to bump the fest back to a later weekend.

“Because we’re all out here to support our community,” Kieffner said. “And we all want to participate in other community’s functions. So, you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”

Celestine Streetfest leadership is meeting remotely with community members tonight to determine the fate of its gathering. Tony Buechler, chairman of the Streetfest’s leadership team, explained that the town’s late-June gathering was already “fairly well planned” when the COVID-19 outbreak began.

Entertainment was lined up and the schedule was “95% complete,” he said. Promotion planning was set to begin. But as coronavirus concerns began to rise, the team pulled back to monitor the situation.

They will converge today at 7 p.m. via phone conference call. After that meeting, Buechler said he expects organizers to “have a lot of clarity” as to whether Streetfest leadership will postpone or cancel this year’s event.

While it could still be a go, sentiment leaning toward calling it off is present, he said in a Monday phone interview.

“Because moving forward from the Fourth of July on, there’s a lot of local events,” Buechler explained. “It’s hard to find an opportunity to reschedule our event without some serious conflicts. And we have had some internal discussions, wondering what will events look like?”

He continued: “Especially immediately coming out of this, of restrictions and the like. Will volunteers be willing to volunteer? Will people be willing to show up? Would you anticipate putting on the regular event you put on every year, just at a rescheduled date, and find that half the people show up and that half the workers show up?”

If the Streetfest is postponed, leadership would abide by public safety orders from the state government and county health department when it does take place. If it is canceled, a smaller event, like a community picnic, may be organized.

Regardless of tonight’s decision, sponsorship dollars will still be distributed to the Celestine organizations that benefit from the festival, Buechler said.

Another big Dubois County event will announce its direction in the coming weeks. Leadership of the 4-H Fair, a gathering that celebrates the hard work of its 850 local participants, will decide by the end of May whether this year’s fair will be held virtually or in a modified, in-person format.

“It is a little bit of a waiting game,” said Lisa Wilson, 4-H youth development educator for Dubois County Purdue Extension. “At least for the next couple of weeks, until some decisions are made. And then we’ll be able to move forward with that.”

Wilson explained that Purdue University will soon release guidance related to the fairs, and paired with input from the county health department and government, the 4-H Council will “see how we can best move forward in a safe way,” she said.

The event is slated to take place from July 13 to 17. If the fair is held remotely, youth would turn in their projects virtually. If it is held in person, it would look different than past years, as it would be modified to meet safety guidelines.

“Some things to think about there are the amount of people that come in at one time,” Wilson said. “We know that things are technically supposed to be open at that point, but there’s a lot of people that we need to think about besides just what is OK’d statewide. We have to see kind of what’s going on here in our county and look to lots of different people for those answers.”

Leadership wants to host the fair offline, but they can only do that if it’s signed off on, Wilson said.

“There will be something that happens July 13th through the 17th,” she said. “And we all certainly hope that it’s going to be an in-person fair because we look forward to it all year. But it won’t be if that doesn’t follow policy.”

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