Mixed messaging confuses organizers about whether to hold events

Apr 28, 2021

Credit Randy Gorbman / WXXI News

Even as COVID-19 vaccination rates grow and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its recommendations for outdoor masking, another Rochester summer festival has been canceled.

Some say government leaders are sending inconsistent and confusing messages on what is and isn't safe.

Lisa Hubler with the Park Avenue Merchants Association said the decision to call off the Park Avenue Summer Art Festival for the second straight year was made in early April. She said it came down to the New York state guidelines.

"The toughest part for us was that the goal posts kept moving a little bit," Hubler said. "It was hard for us to gauge what we needed to do in order to make it happen."

The announcement came just a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the New York State Fair would return in August at 50% capacity. But Hubler said that would not be realistic for an event like the Park Avenue Festival, which draws more than 200,000 people in a typical year.

"We cannot do a festival on Park Avenue at 50% capacity," she said. "It's just too complicated to monitor the ins and outs of people coming."

Hubler added that decisions about this year's festival had to be made in advance to give vendors enough notice.  She said most of them were not surprised by the cancellation because arts shows and festivals in other states have been canceled.

"It's unfortunate. It's a very sad day for all of us. This wasn't something we wanted," Hubler said.

Just last week, organizers of the Corn Hill Arts Festival said because of the coronavirus pandemic, it would not be held in July.

Some question whether some of the safety concerns about outdoor events make sense when, by some estimates, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is 19 times lower than indoor settings.

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart believes governments should be facilitating outdoor and events and activities.

"It actually could save lives to do that, because if you're not encouraging people to go outdoors, they will stay indoors where the rates of infection are much, much higher," she said.

Barnhart sees the cancellation or refiguring of summer festivals as an equity issue.

"People with money can spend on indoors and outdoors entertainment and they can keep themselves safe," she said. "People without money don't have those options, and outdoor free events are for everyone."

The Lilac Festival will return to Highland Park on May 7, but the event will be limited to three consecutive weekends, rather than the traditional 10-day run. Tickets for socially distanced seating are on sale for specific festival events, including craft beer and wine expos which will take place under a tent.

"In our effort to be safe, we have moved an outdoor event into tents -- an event that you have to buy tickets for," said Barnhart. "That's not following science. That's making an event exclusionary."

Jeff Springut, the CEO of Rochester Events, which runs the Lilac Festival, said the festival was limited in what it could offer, based on state guidelines. 

"We've always had paid events in that tent. We've had comedians perform in the tent. We can't do what I call shoulder-to-shoulder concerts, and that's pretty obvious," Springut said. "You can say it's not egalitarian, but our options were to cancel the festival or do what we could do safely."

Scott Winner, director of public relations for Fairport Canal Days, agreed. His festival will operate on a smaller scale -- perhaps at half-capacity. Canal Nights concerts are also in a holding pattern due to concerns about shoulder-to-shoulder concerts. Winner said there has always been a nominal fee for those concerts, but if capacity is limited, prices may need to increase. 

"This money makes a huge difference in a small community," he said.

Orlando Ortiz, president of the Rochester Puerto Rican Festival, said a final decision about where and when that festival will be held has not yet been made. 

"For us, it’s more clarity on the capacity side," Ortiz said. "The guidelines, I don’t know if it’s clear enough that it is supported to festivals and live entertainment. It’s a gathering. So it’s like, well I’m an outside gathering, so do I meet that guideline? I don’t know."

The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival will return this year in a hybrid setting. It will include digital, indoor, and outdoor performances. Producer Erica Fee said the lack of guidance from the state has been a huge frustration. She also hopes the state will make changes in the guidelines related to what vaccinated people can do. 

“Why is it that vaccinated people only have a slight increase in capacity?" said Fee. "If we have vaccinated people and it is only vaccinated people attending a festival or an indoor event or an outdoor event, then we should have, perhaps, unlimited capacity for them.”

Meanwhile, Hubler said her organization is considering plans to celebrate the Park Avenue Festival this August in a smaller way.

"We're hopeful that 2022 will come back and will be bigger and better than ever," she said.

For a list of local festivals and their status, click here.