COVID may interfere with fall events

With uncertainty comes opportunities for health officials to bring vaccines to the people

This past weekend, more than 20,000 science fiction and fantasy mavens attended GalaxyCon Raleigh, the four-day traveling fandom festival. Including my friend John Hood and his stepdaughter, who shared this neat moment.

The convention, which featured not only Barry Bostwick but also William Shatner(!) among others, took place indoors at the Raleigh Convention Center. Attendees were asked to mask if they weren’t vaccinated, but nothing was mandated. Yet.

Sunday, a few blocks away, as GalaxyCon was winding down, a scheduled food truck rodeo was canceled. Organizers cited COVID-19 concerns, even though the event would have occurred outdoors. The hosts said they couldn’t check temperatures of the hundreds of people who would have passed through.

Unanticipated resistance to vaccinations, along with uncertainties about the threat of Delta and other COVID variants, worry event organizers. They’re not sure what precautions are necessary to protect their staff, volunteers, and customers.

They’re trying.

Traditional music meets Messenger RNA

The two major events I most care about — Merlefest, Sept. 16-19 at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro; and IBMA Bluegrass Live!, Sept. 28-Oct. 2 in downtown Raleigh — have special measures in place. They follow local and state health guidelines, and go beyond them.

If no new restrictions are imposed, Merlefest will incorporate more hand sanitizing stations; separate the seated dining area from the food tent; disallow public back stage access; reduce the number of vendors and amount of merchandise available on the grounds; perform daily health checks of staff, volunteers, and food services workers; and, unfortunately, cancel one of the festival’s best features: School Day, when Wilkes County students were bused to the campus and admitted for free all day Friday.

The county health department also will offer vaccinations throughout the festival.

Pinecone, the nonprofit Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, hosts IBMA Bluegrass Live! Pinecone staff is working with officials at IBMA, the Raleigh Convention Center, the city, and the local convention and visitors bureau to deal with ever-changing circumstances, Communications Director Jamie Katz Court said in an email.

For instance, on Monday the City of Raleigh mandated mask-wearing for anyone inside a city building. The mandate would apply in two locations for Bluegrass Live! events and performances — Raleigh Convention Center, where the IBMA business meetings and workshops occur, and the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, where the IBMA awards ceremony and performances take place. If bad weather requires scheduled outdoor events to be moved inside, as happened in 2015 when Hurricane Joaquin blew through, then everyone attending (though perhaps not vaccinated performers) would have to mask up, too.

The outdoor stages for the free street festival will move to areas allowing freer movement for the audience.

Wake County also will provide free vaccinations on site. 

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Unlike 2019, when general admission to the main stage events at Red Hat Amphitheater was free (first come, first served), general admission to the big show will run $15 and keep the crunch under control.

Court added that Pinecone again plans to offer sighted guides to help people who are blind or visually impaired attend performances, business meetings, and the like. Since this service requires close contact, both the guides and the people they’re working with will have to be vaccinated by Sept. 16. They’re the only volunteers or participants who must be vaccinated.

Smaller events scrambling

Organizers of large events can figure ways to reposition exhibits, performances, and people to limit risk. At smaller venues, that’s not always possible. Even the hosts of an outdoor food truck rodeo may find the health challenges too daunting. 

Sadly, two of our favorite fall events were victims of COVID’s uncertainty: The Open Farm Days at Rising Meadow Farm in Liberty and Goat Lady Dairy in nearby Climax — both a little more than an hour west of Raleigh.

Rising Meadow is a 128-acre working sheep farm which produces breeding stock, fleeces, yarn, sheepskins, and delicious lamb. They sell online and by appointment.

Several times a year, when there’s no pandemic, the owners open the farm to local artists and craftmakers. You’ll also see herding agility drills and can witness the annual Shearing Day.

Goat Lady produces cheese and other delicious dairy products, partnering with three other local farmers. The dairy hosts dinners and open farm days with its partners — and usually has a local potter throwing clay. Along with online sales, you often can find Goat Lady products at State Farmers Markets. 

Rising Meadow’s fall Open Farm Day was scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 15. But the recent COVID surge put a halt to that. I hope to talk with Ann Fay of Rising Meadow next week and will give an update.

Meanwhile, Shearing Day’s in February! Stay tuned!

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County health departments get creative

Merlefest and World of Bluegrass are obvious locations for COVID vaccination clinics. And as this story from Rose Hoban at N.C. Health News explains, N.C. county health departments are happy to set up shop at much smaller events — in this case, a family day at a rural Brunswick County church.

Cumberland County Health Director Jennifer Green said sponsors of large and small events are requesting vaccine clinics, hoping to prevent a replay of 2020.

Especially for back-to-school events… movie nights in the park, that kind of thing,” Green said. “We’re working with the state’s Healthier Together campaign for them to help us get out some messaging because they have experience in working in communities and knocking on doors and canvassing and putting out flyers and getting using different types of approaches.

Whatever it takes.