Take Heart – 2021 Festivals Are On The Way Via Vaccines and The Experience of 2020

Take Heart – 2021 Festivals Are On The Way Via Vaccines and The Experience of 2020

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

If you can find anyone who’s sorry to see 2020 go, let me know – we’ll need to have a long talk. The loss of life is devastating and the burden on small businesses to find ways to stay viable has been more than many can bear. The toll of the mental and physical health strains on the population will only be known in the future, as will the negative effects on school age children’s social and academic lives.

In light of all that, it seems silly to lament the loss of craft beverage festivals for much of 2020. Yet festivals do have an impact, both socially and financially. Cities and other organizations that hire companies to organize festivals do so because they recruit businesses and residents to their locale – a factor crucial for their future. Breweries, wineries, and distilleries participate in festivals because they drive business to their establishment or promote their brand in distribution. Artists, musicians, food trucks – they all suffer when craft beverage festivals don’t happen.

Everyone’s hopes for 2021, and there are reasons to be optimistic. image credit: Newman Hall – Holy Spirit Parish

But be of good cheer, 2021 is looking to be a great rebound year. Festivals like the Sour, Wild, Funk Fest (Sept. 11) have been rescheduled for later than their normal date to assure a safe environment. Some festivals scheduled for early in the year have been moved to warmer dates so they can be held outside. New festivals are looking to schedule for summer or fall, so the majority of the population will be vaccinated by then.

The reasons for optimism are many, but we will discuss two major ones: 1) The fall of 2020 saw a small number of festivals that were successful both in bringing events to the people and in being safe, and 2) Multiple vaccines have been developed and approved (or soon will be) in record time and have begun distribution. Taken together, these factors promise a great 2021 for craft beverage festivals – and for craft beverage producers in general.

Experience from 2020. It’s no secret that March through early August, 2020 saw the appropriate cancellation or postponement of all but the rarest of craft beer festivals. We knew little about the virus early on, and the best we could say about it mid-year is that studies with conflicting conclusions seemed to stoke the fires of controversy. As a 20 yr. practicing scientist in infectious disease research, all I can say is – that’s how science works – there’s precious little new knowledge that isn’t open to three or four interpretations.

That’s why it’s so important that science be repeatable. Only by expanding on a repeated result can you hone in on the truth. It’s different with a vaccine, you have a defined endpoint to which you strive and trials will show whether you meet that endpoint or not. But with something new like a previously unknown disease, knowledge is much slower to coalesce. That’s why we have vaccines for Covid before we really understand the pathology (while still acknowledging that 10 months to a vaccine is…miraculous).

Was trying to have festivals in fall 2020 more like developing a vaccine or more like searching for new knowledge? To my thinking it was a bit of both. The endpoint was to put on an event that people could enjoy without having positive cases result. The new knowledge portion of the equation was just how do go about achieving that endpoint.

Both the Marion County Health Department and the Madison County Health Departments stated that the Covid-19 Safety Plan submitted was the best that they had seen. image credit: City of Anderson

People that organized and held events over the fall of 2020 talked to one another to pass around suggestions for procedures and to talk about what worked and what could be improved. Organizers for fall events included municipalities (Anderson, Lawrence, Rushville), organizations (Indianapolis Zoo, Duneland Chamber of Commerce), and bars/breweries (The Coterie, 10-56 Brewing). Together, there were seven festivals through the fall in Indiana with NO reported cases of Covid originating from them. How did they do this?

Beth Luncsford of the Duneland Chamber of Commerce organized and managed the Corkscrew & Brew Festival in Chesterton on Nov. 7. I asked her about the processes they used and the feelings within and without about holding the festival.  She said, “We worked closely with the health department and the town to develop a plan to make it a safe event. Masks were required except while drinking, and we encouraged social distancing. We had volunteers going around and gently enforcing these rules.”

She added, “We used disposable cups as not to pass the tasting cups back and forth. Hard surfaces were sanitized every two hours as advised by the health department. We also greatly limited the number of tickets sold to allow for more space for social distancing. We had available public restrooms with sinks, wash stations, and hand sanitizer at each vendor tent and throughout the event.”

As to their thoughts before and after the festival Beth told me, “There is a sense of nervousness for every event that we do. Will it go well, will it be successful, will the attendees enjoy it? This year was another level of stress. We made a lot of adjustments and formed partnerships to make it happen. On the day of the event, I was confident with our plan. In retrospect, I think we lucked out with the timing of the rescheduled event. Numbers were still pretty low in our area, and events were still being allowed at the time. We view the event as a huge success. That includes meeting our goals, ticket holder and vendor satisfaction, and the safety measures carried out and successful.”

Constant reminders to attendees throughout the festival help to make things safer. image credit: Indiana On Tap

The Brewfari at the Indianapolis Zoo during Halloween was a larger event, yet still successful (in terms of health and festival). Scarlet Lane Brewing in McCordsville is a title sponsor for Brewfari. I asked Nick Servies of Scarlet Lane if they had any qualms about attaching their name to an event like this during the pandemic. Nick noted, “Our contribution, as we do every time with the zoo, was bringing all of our props and the hearse. I know they had to submit plans for approval to the Health Department and they did a really good job of spreading things out, limiting tickets and not having the social/dance/DJ area this year. From what I heard it was a successful fund raiser without issue before or after. We trusted the zoo knew what they were doing and we kept our team aware and safe on how to handle it safely.”

The idea that local health departments were consulted, safety plans were submitted, and follow-up was done for all the fall events is very important. Safety plans codified the plans made for protection into a strict set of procedures, and the health departments being involved meant that contact tracing and reporting would let organizers know if any cases could be traced back to the event. No event this fall was notified that any attendee or vendor contracted the virus at the festival.

As far as Indiana On Tap was involved, the three festivals managed for cities were also very successful on all levels. The cities involved with Anderson On Tap, Lagers in Lawrence, and Rushville Libations by the Levee were/are the owners of the events, so Indiana On Tap gave advice and wrote safety plans, but it was up to the owners whether the festival would proceed. Having the health departments on board and having specific plans in place went a long way to giving the festival owners confidence that the festivals could be held safely.

For those that want to know the specifics of the Indiana On Tap safety plans and what was done at the festivals, here they are: 1) reduced attendance, 2) held out of doors, 3) increased spacing of vendor booths (at least 25 ft.) and no crossing of lines, 4) masks used by attendees when entering and leaving and when social distancing was not possible, 5) masks for staff, vendors, volunteers and security at all times, 6) screening of attendees and vendors upon arrival, 7) wash stations and sanitizer spread throughout the grounds, 8) touchless pouring – ie. the patron puts down their glass and the vendor fills it (without touching it) from a pitcher of draft or from packaged product, and 9) social distance markers were placed at every booth.

Torn in the Corn – run responsibly, it was both fun and safe. image credit: 10-56 Brewing

Health department officials were on hand for all three of the festivals managed by Indiana On Tap in the fall and at the Corkscrew & Brew in Chesterton. They ensured that the procedures were followed, and also made suggestions if they saw something that could be improved. To the point that things were done appropriately, a Madison County Health Dept. official at Anderson On Tap told us that she was pleased with the event and personally felt very safe.

It was noted during the events that attendees tended to congregate with people with whom they arrived, and they were cognizant of social distancing – at each event there was a minimum of 80 sq. ft. of space per attendee. Other organizers that we talked to abided by these procedures as well, including the distance given each attendee.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the health of the attendee that the organizers had to worry about; it was also the response of the public. People who were not at the events were not aware of the procedures put in place, and that meant that some social media backlash was possible. However, the organizers I spoke with said that there was no backlash before or after the events and they are glad they proceeded with the festivals, as locals were much in favor of holding the events, if safe.

Nick Servies said, “I am not aware of any backlash towards the zoo and we didn’t have any.” Beth Luncsford told me, “We did not receive much backlash. We heard a lot of positive feedback in regards to the event. Many people were glad to have an event to attend. Even with everyone in masks, there was a sense of normalcy to safely and responsibly gather again. Two health department employees were overseeing the event for the majority of the time. We took safety very seriously. We wanted to give people a fun event, but it needed to be safe.”

Erica and Mike Hemphill of 10-56 Brewing in Knox may have had the most on the line (backlash-wise) by holding the Torn in the Corn Brewfest right at their brewery during the pandemic. However, Erica told me that, “People were disappointed that so many festivals were cancelled and looked forward to ours and feeling good about it knowing it would be outdoors. We don’t have any regrets about holding the event. We felt the festival was a huge success, with bigger attendance than last year. It was a beautiful day, the band was fantastic and the energy was the best ever. It was a solid day and we still hear from our guests about how much fun they had.”

The vaccines are here! This should make 2021 better for breweries and festivals. image credit: USA Today

Torn in the Corn used all the safety features noted above, including the touchless pouring from pitchers. In total, the experience from the seven festivals in the fall of 2020 and the positive outcomes from the festivals mean that 2021 is shaping up to be a safe, and for festivals, plentiful year.

Vaccines are here and improving the outlook for 2021. The promise of a quasi-normal 2021 is strong, both because the experience gained in 2020 will be built upon and festivals will be safer than ever, but also because science is providing a solution as well. As of the third week of December, two Covid-19 vaccines have been approved (Pfizer, Moderna) and two more are finishing trials (Johnson & Johnson, AztraZeneca). Two of these are single shot vaccines, and Pfizer packaging is allowing for 6+ doses per vial instead of five, so it is probable, not just possible, that more than 150 million full vaccinations (not doses) will be delivered by March.

Combine the increasing immunity from now through mid-2021 with the experience gained from fall 2020, and 2021 festivals look to be on the upswing. Early 2021 festivals will rely on the lessons learned in 2020, with expectations that the results will be as positive as in 2020. Even more important, many people will be vaccinated – especially vulnerable populations – during the period from now until February, so early festivals will gain safety margin from this as well.

I’m not just subjectively optimistic for early-mid 2021, I am objectively optimistic. And for summer/fall 2021, we’ll be cooking with gas. As a craft beverage fan, you’re going to be in heaven from May through December. The line from the Persian/Jewish fables, “This too shall pass,” seems to be applicable here – all hail 2021.

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