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

People fill Belleville's downtown main street for the city's annual Chili Cookoff in 2016. Organizers were forced to move the event to a virtual setting last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they plan to have in-person guests this year.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
People fill Belleville's downtown main street for the city's annual Chili Cookoff in 2016. Organizers were forced to move the event to a virtual setting last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they plan to return in person this year.

Summers in St. Louis are marked by festivals, parades, homecomings and other outdoor community gatherings in towns large and small.

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

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

Now festival planners are cautiously working toward holding their events in person this year.

Pfeil oversees the city’s annual Chili Cookoff in October, which offered a virtual chili competition last year. In a normal year, the festival lines Belleville’s downtown Main Street with scores of booths and hundreds of people.

Pfeil is planning for an in-person event this time, but she admits there’s a lot that’s out of her control.

“I would hate to say it, but there’s a possibility that we’d have to suspend it again this year,” she said. “That would be the ultimate heartbreaker for people to not have it two years in a row.”

Many of the major decisions over how to run this year’s Chili Cookoff won’t be made until July, when Pfeil and her staff will have a better sense of where coronavirus case numbers in the region stand. It’s too risky to make any definitive plans now, she said.

“I don’t know that we can assume that risk right now knowing where we’re at with everything and even come October not knowing if the numbers are changing,” she said. “It may be that we have to move it from downtown Belleville into a controlled location, and maybe it becomes a ticketed event.”

Pfeil’s experience demonstrates what festival organizers are up against in planning a large public gathering in the middle of an unpredictable global pandemic.

Trina Vetter, Edwardsville’s special event coordinator, didn’t start planning the city’s Route 66 Festival until March after the tumult of a last-minute cancelation last year. She typically starts making arrangements in January for the June event, which features vendors, activities for kids and a vintage car show among other attractions.

The delay this year put her behind in solidifying much-needed event sponsors from the community, Vetter said.

“I’m hoping the guilt factor of some phone calls are going to help us out,” she said. “I know our community is giving, and people want the event. It’s just a matter of reminding the businesses that we need sponsorships to make it happen.”

 Classic cars cruise through the City of Edwardsville during one year's Route 66 Festival. The festival is one of the first major outdoor summer events in Edwardsville.
City of Edwardsville
City of Edwardsville
Classic cars cruise through Edwardsville during a Route 66 Festival. The festival is one of the first major outdoor summer events in the city.

This year’s festival, scheduled for June 12, will look similar to ones in years past with the exception of a kids zone with bounce houses and a climbing wall, Vetter said. Removing that portion of the event made accommodating public health guidelines much easier, she added.

Illinois’ guidelines limit Vetter’s event to 30 people per 1,000 square feet, which is enough that she won’t need to count who is entering or exiting, she said.

Guests will need to wear face masks when they’re in a crowded area. But they won’t need the coverings if they’re sitting socially distant on the park’s lawn.

“If you’ve got six feet between you and the family next to you then yes you can take your mask off,” Vetter said.

There will also be more space in-between vendors, and they’ll all have hand sanitizer at their individual stalls, she added.

These measures are good ways to protect public health at a larger gathering, said Dr. Tim Wiemken, who directs infectious disease epidemiology at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital.

He recommends individuals use the provided sanitizer often, especially after touching surfaces that so many other people have come in contact with. Wiemken adds there’s an even better way to stay safe.

“No. 1 is: Get vaccinated,” he said. “Unquestionably, that’s going to be the thing that protects you the most.”

Wiemken said he’s also wary of food at festivals because people must remove their masks to eat.

“It’s not so much about banning food trucks and food or that kind of thing,” he said. “It’s about properly staggering access, or staggering how people are congregating while their masks are off.”

Above all, Wiemken said it’s important for event organizers to enforce rules that protect public health but in a way that doesn’t punish festival goers.

“Dealing with some of these large gatherings, there’s a role for that approach of talking to people legitimately,” he said. “Everyone knows there’s a risk.”

And festival organizers understand this. They know every choice they make over how a festival takes shape is important.

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

After a year hiatus, people in the region are looking forward to a return to some normalcy, Vetter said.

“It’s that excuse to get out and see faces,” she said. “It’s [Route 66 Fest] is a summer hangout night. And then our concert series and art series start after that. It’s the kickoff for us.”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.