Again, Edmonton's summer festivals are dealing with uncertainty caused by pandemic

Uncertainly over COVID-19 restrictions and vaccinations is making it difficult for Edmonton festival organizers to plan their summer events, but there is some optimism.

Folk fest 'very unlikely to happen,' producer Terry Wickham says

Thousands of music lovers flock to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival every year but if it does go ahead in 2021, it won't be the same. (Edmonton Folk Music Festival)

Organizers of Edmonton's big summer festivals are doing their best to deal with uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Festivals like the Fringe, the Heritage festival and Taste of Edmonton all had to cancel in 2020, and organizers don't want that to happen again this year.

Fringe Theatre artistic director Murray Utas still isn't sure what the August festival will look like this year, but he's optimistic there won't be the disappointment that came with last year's cancellation.

"We're going to try and get something done and bring some joy to our community but we're going to do it in a very safe, responsible way," Utas said Thursday. "In a normal year, we'd be pretty much planned by this point and ready to tell the world in May." 

Fringe organizers are trying to prepare for various scenarios but the clock is ticking.

"When the end of March comes, we have to make some decisions and if we still don't have the kind of go ahead that we're looking at, well, then we're back in a place of going, 'Can we, can we not?' " Utas said.

One of the complications is travel restrictions, which could prevent artists from getting to Edmonton.

"We're probably looking at maybe a local-only festival should those restrictions not ease from a travel point of view," Utas said.

It's unlikely the Edmonton Fringe Festival will have crowds like this in 2021. (Edmonton Fringe Festival)

Travel isn't an issue for the Taste of Edmonton food festival but Donovan Vienneau, general manager of Events Edmonton, said it does come with challenges.

Taste of Edmonton was held at the legislature grounds in 2018 and 2019 but cancelled last year. The plan this year is for the food festival to return to Churchill Square.

"We've got a rather large space, probably the biggest in history," he said. "We've also implemented a six-foot gap between each of the restaurant tents."

Other measures include wider walkways and alleyways, along with fewer participating restaurants.

Still, Vienneau said the festival hasn't yet received official word the event can go ahead. Taste of Edmonton is yet to secure approvals from the City of Edmonton, Alberta Health Services or the province.

"But for this festival that takes nine months to produce, we are working behind the scenes diligently."

Despite the unknown, Vienneau remains optimistic.

"It would be devastating if this is shut down again but for a safe and effective food festival, we feel that we're headed in the right direction."

Taste of Edmonton is expected to return to Churchill Square this year which will allow for more room to avoid scenes like this from the 2019 event. (Sheena Rossiter/CBC)

Jim Gibbon, executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Festival Association, said Heritage Fest is planning for various scenarios.

"We actually have three budgets going at the same time for three different versions of the festival," Gibbon said. The options range from a virtual festival to a full event with a maximum two-thirds capacity.

"Everything is dependent on Alberta Health," Gibbon said. "You have to do what you have to do and we don't want to be known as Heritage Fest-slash-super-spreader."

Organizers say if the Heritage Festival goes ahead as a full event this year, capacity will be limited to 2/3rds. (Rob Hislop/Edmonton Heritage Festival)

Terry Wickham, longtime producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, said the outlook isn't good.

"I don't foresee 2021 being held in any recognizable shape for fans of the folk festival," Wickham said. "I just can't see 25,000 people gathering even if it is outdoors."

There's too much unpredictability with international borders and vaccines, Wickham said, adding that another cancellation would be devastating.

"That would be the worst of all scenarios because that could put us out of business forever," he said.

"We haven't officially ruled it out but I've been using the term 'very unlikely to happen.' Our board will meet early next month and they will officially take the decision."

K-Days was cancelled last year but it appears there is hope for 2021. The dates for this summer have been posted online and in a social media post, the Northlands team, which runs the event, said it is "gathering information in an effort to guide decision-making regarding our signature events." 

Northlands is asking people to fill out a survey to help gauge the best way to relaunch its events in Edmonton.

Festivals can work, city manager says

Edmonton city manager Andre Corbould said there's already proof festivals can be held during the pandemic.

"The Silver State Festival, for example, recently took place in and around [Hawrelak Park] and it was a great, successful event," Corbould said Thursday. "So we can continue to do things." 

The city will contact festival organizers in the coming days and weeks to understand what their needs and desires are in terms of running these events, he said. "There's no doubt that we want to do these things, and if it's safe to do so, we will."

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the number of people who get the vaccine against COVID-19 will be crucial.

"The more Albertans who are taking us up on that offer when they are eligible, the more able we'll be to consider moving this summer — again, depending on timelines and vaccine availability— into potentially allowing some festivals that we weren't able to allow last summer," Hinshaw said.

"But that again depends on some of those factors that we're continuing to track and monitor, and so more information will be coming soon."


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