St. Louis Area Festival Organizers Eye In-Person Return After Pandemic Hiatus

Summers in St. Louis are marked by festivals, parades, homecoming, and other outdoor gatherings in cities both large and small.

But the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic uprooted those traditions, forcing public event organizers to make an effort to host their events virtually or scrap them entirely.

“It was just sad,” said Wendy Pfeil, President and CEO of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce. “The community looks forward to that every year, and you took that away from them.”

Now festival planners are working cautiously to hold their events in person this year.

Pfeil oversees the city’s annual chilli cookoff in October, which last year offered a virtual chilli contest. In a normal year, the festival lines downtown Belleville with dozens of stalls and hundreds of people.

Pfeil is planning a face-to-face event this time, but she admits that much is beyond her control.

“I would hate to say it but there is a chance we will have to put it on again this year,” she said. “That would be the ultimate heartbreaker for people who don’t have it two years in a row.”

Many of the key decisions about running this year’s Chili Cookoff won’t be made until July, when Pfeil and her staff have a better understanding of where the coronavirus case numbers are in the region. It is too risky to make final plans now, she said.

“I don’t know we can take that risk now when we know where we are with everything, and even in October without knowing if the numbers are changing,” she said. “We may need to get it from downtown Belleville to a controlled location and maybe it will turn into a ticketing event.”

Pfeil’s experience shows what to expect the festival organizers when planning a large public gathering in the midst of an unpredictable global pandemic.

Trina Vetter, Edwardsville’s special events coordinator, didn’t start planning the city’s Route 66 festival until March after a last-minute cancellation last year. She usually starts organizing the June event in January, which includes vendors, children’s activities and a classic car show, among other things.

The delay this year has prevented them from gaining much-needed event sponsors from the community, Vetter said.

“I hope the guilt factor of some phone calls will help us,” she said. “I know that our community gives something and that people want the event. It’s just about reminding companies that we need sponsorship to make this happen. “

    Vintage cars drive through the city of Edwardsville during the annual Route 66 Festival.  The festival is one of the first major summer outdoor events in Edwardsville.

City of Edwardsville

Vintage cars drive through Edwardsville during a Route 66 festival. The festival is one of the first major summer outdoor events in the city.

This year’s festival, slated for June 12, will look similar to previous years, with the exception of a kids’ zone with inflatables and a climbing wall, Vetter said. Removing that part of the event made it much easier to align with public health guidelines, she added.

Illinois guidelines limit Vetter’s event to 30 people per 1,000 square feet, which is enough that she doesn’t have to count who gets in or out, she said.

Guests must wear face masks when in a crowded area. But they don’t need the blanket when they are socially far away on the park lawn.

“If you have six feet between you and the family, you can take off your mask,” said Vetter.

There will also be more space between vendors, and everyone will have hand sanitizer at their individual booths, she added.

These measures are a great way to protect public health at a major gathering, said Dr. Tim Wiemken, who leads Infectious Disease Epidemiology at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital.

He recommends individuals use the provided disinfectant frequently, especially after touching surfaces that so many other people have come into contact with. Wiemken adds that there is an even better way to be sure.

“No. 1 is get vaccinated,” he said. “Without a doubt, this will be what protects you the most.”

Wiemken said he was careful about eating at festivals because people have to take off their masks to eat.

“It’s not so much about banning food trucks and eating or anything,” he said. “It’s about relocating access properly, or relocating the way people gather with their masks off.”

Above all, Wiemken said it was important for organizers to enforce rules that protect public health but do not punish festival goers.

“At some of these large gatherings, the approach of speaking legitimately to people comes into play,” he said. “Everyone knows there is a risk.”

And festival organizers understand that. They know that every decision how a festival takes shape is important.

“These decisions are not made on a whim,” said Pfeil. “There are a lot of people involved.”

After a one-year break, the people in the region are looking forward to a return to normal, said Vetter.

“It’s that excuse to come out and see faces,” she said. “It is [Route 66 Fest] is a summer meeting point night. And then our concert and art series begin. It is the beginning for us. “

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