Planning a large-scale event is challenging in the best of times. Throw in the unpredictability of a pandemic and constantly evolving restrictions from the state, and summer festival organizers in Anoka County feel like they’re in limbo.
“We’re just waiting for the state to tell us what we can or cannot do,” said Peter Turok, president of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, which puts on Anoka Riverfest each July. “We’re in no-man’s-land right now.”
Although it’s hard to plan anything without throwing the word “tentative” in front of it, festival organizers in Anoka County are trying to make the best of the situation, coming up with plans and sometimes contingency plans.
“We’re very optimistic we can have something for the community this year,” said Stephanie Ring with the city of Coon Rapids, which canceled its Fourth of July festivities last year. “We’re planning this tentatively and being cautiously optimistic.”
Many organizers expect to incorporate ongoing COVID-19 precautions, such as masks, social distancing and hand-washing stations into their logistical plans. But with the uncertainty surrounding vaccine rollout, coronavirus variants and more, they’re not certain what additional precautions might be necessary for large events.
“We have a COVID preparedness plan in place, and it’s a fluid plan based on the COVID guidelines as the governor puts them out,” Blaine Festival marketing director Kat Smithe said. “They could possibly change at this point. We’re being cautious at this point, and we’re working on the final details.”
Riverfest, too, is awaiting further guidance from the state, but it has also picked a backup date of Sept. 18 in case the traditional second Saturday in July doesn’t work. The Anoka Area Chamber will make a decision in early June about whether the July event can take place.
Other events, such as Spring Lake Park’s Tower Days June 10-13, are hoping for the best but don’t have fall-back dates in mind. “It’s either that or nothing,” said Parks and Recreation Director Kay Okey, who plans the event alongside the Tower Days Committee.
Fridley’s ‘49er Days festival has gone even further and is canceled again this year.
The city of Coon Rapids will host a Fourth of July event no matter what, Ring said, but in May the city will decide if it needs to make more changes to follow COVID-19 protocols.
Even if they’re able to take place, some events will scale back.
The Blaine Festival won’t host a parade this year and is making other changes as well.
“We’re scaling back on the number of food vendors, the number of craft and business vendors and we’ve chosen not to do some of the events we have previously done in the festival,” Smithe said. “Due to the COVID guidelines, we felt it was in our best interest to not do those particular things this year.”
Spring Lake Park Tower Days won’t have a parade either, and it has canceled the softball tournament and business and craft fair.
Typically on the last day of Tower Days events are continuously held throughout the entire day. Events usually include music, kids activities, lumberjack shows and more.
“This year it’s going to be more staggered, individual events,” Okey said. “That way we can control the crowds. We’re going to ask people to get advance tickets. They’re free, but that way we can kind of know who already is thinking of coming and we can also handle any walk-ins with that too.”
Unlike Blaine and Spring Lake Park, Coon Rapids does plan to have a parade as part of its Fourth of July celebration, but it has nixed firefighter bingo — an attraction Ring said is always a crowd pleaser but draws too large a group to keep distanced under a tent.
Normally three days, the Coon Rapids Fourth of July festivities will be crunched into two days, July 3-4. The city expects to have the usual carnival with rides, live music, a car show, a 5K run and, of course, the fireworks show, Ring said.
Riverfest in Anoka, which often draws upwards of 20,000 people, faces unique challenges. Even though it’s outdoors, the roughly 200 craft and food vendors are typically set up side by side, and crowds fill the street.
Turok said the chamber will make whatever adjustments are needed to have the show if it’s allowed.
“The biggest thing for us is going to be if the state says these booths have to be spaced out,” Turok said.
If that happens, the event will likely have to downsize. Turok thinks it could run at around 75% of the usual stalls because there are nearby areas where the show could expand to allow more room between stalls. Organizers are in contact with the city about possibilities.
If they can happen safely, summer events that draw crowds have the potential to financially boost nearby businesses that are hurting after a tough year.
Riverfest in particular is poised to do just that. According to Turok, the event is a big deal for the local economy.
“I can tell you the restaurants and business in Anoka need us to have this event because it creates traffic for them,” he said.
He added that Riverfest has always been about more than just one-day sales; it’s about getting people to Anoka and the surrounding area so they’ll see what the region has to offer and return throughout the year.
The chamber doesn’t rely on Riverfest as a big fundraiser, so even though it took a small hit when the event didn’t happen last year, it wasn’t devastating. But many vendors that participate were hurt last year by a myriad of canceled shows.
“They need the show as vendors because they just didn’t have a chance in 2020,” Turok said.
And after a year without many activities available, Turok expects enthusiasm from the public for events like Riverfest.
“When we can have this show, I think people are going to come in droves,” he said. “Yeah, you’re going to have that portion of the public that’s just not comfortable yet, but with vaccines rolling out and people that are comfortable, I think people are looking for anything to do. … When it happens, it’s going to be crazy.”
This story is part of an ongoing series in which ABC Newspapers will explore the issues involved in the reopening of our community as we begin to recover from the pandemic.