Back to the Sep-Oct 2021 issue

The Return of City Festivals

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

A festival scene.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in Two Harbors called off Heritage Days, the city’s annual summer celebration that features music performances, a street dance party, and two parades that draws thousands of Minnesotans.

But this year, with many residents now vaccinated and COVID-19 rates in the area down from previous highs, Heritage Days went on in July.

It’s the same for cities across Minnesota, where officials have worked for months to safely put on their popular annual events amid a much-anticipated return to a degree of normalcy this summer.

Attendees of Roseville’s 2021 Rosefest enjoy the Teddy Bear Concert. Photo courtesy city of Roseville.

While some towns have made significant changes to their 2021 summer events, for others, summer festivals look and feel much like a non-pandemic year. All officials have been eager to bring community members back together after months of isolation for many Minnesotans, which took a toll on residents’ mental health.

“People have lost touch with others in the community,” says Heritage Days Committee Chair Cheryl Sundstrom. “With things slowly starting to open up, everyone was very eager to get out. It was great for people to be able to see each other.”

No Fun Run and a new parade route in Two Harbors

Sundstrom and her fellow festival volunteers started planning for Heritage Days back in December when she went before the City Council to ask for approval to apply for grants that fund the annual event. The council gave her the green light.

“I thought, we’ll get things in place and if we have to cancel, we’ll cancel,” she says. In February, she and the committee made the decision to go ahead with Heritage Days.

Sundstrom also drew up a COVID safety plan following recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Health. At the time, masks were mandated by the state. Sundstrom was conscious of the event’s size — which includes a 70-unit parade with around 5,000 spectators — and advertisements in early spring that she placed in the city’s quarterly newsletter suggested attendees both social distance and wear masks.

Now, with the state’s mask order rescinded, “if people didn’t want to wear a mask, we weren’t going to be the police and kick them out,” says Sundstrom, who took solace in the fact that almost the entire event was held outdoors.

During a series of spring meetings, Sundstrom and team decided to modify several parts of the four-day festival to help keep community members safe. Heritage Days’ Fun Run, which typically happens on the first night of the event, was canceled this year.

“We don’t have the staffing to keep things separated and keep people distanced,” she says. “We said, it’s probably safer not to do it.”

Committee members also altered the event’s parade route, moving its staging area to a wider road in town by a park with restrooms to help prevent crowding. “We get really cramped in staging,” she says. As a side benefit, the route change helped with traffic. “In past years we were bumper to bumper. It caused so much congestion.”

The 2021 Holdingford Daze, held June 9-10, featured all its usual events, including a car show. Photo courtesy city of Holdingford.

Also canceled were carnival games for kids, since it would be hard to enforce distancing with the hundreds of children in attendance. The event’s free ice cream social and Friday night street dance went on, though. The dance’s hours, however, were shifted from 7 to 11 p.m. to 6 to 10 p.m. That change was made when bars had to close at 10 p.m., but the new hours remained in an effort to cut down on the size of the crowd.

“We just didn’t know how many people would show up,” Sundstrom says. Sunday’s stage bands were limited this year to four hours versus the typical six to seven hours, again in an effort to limit the time that large crowds were gathered. The event’s number of vendors was also capped at 45, compared to the usual 60 to 70.

Sundstrom kept a close eye on COVID- 19 numbers as the event date neared. She was also eager for what’s usually a huge, positive economic impact on the city from Heritage Days. “I was really hoping that numbers stayed low and people had the common sense to think of others and follow the guidelines,” she says. “But I was very excited too.”

Large-scale events postponed in Roseville

In Roseville, Parks and Recreation Director Lonnie Brokke and Assistant Director Matthew Johnson decided to move forward with a modified version of the city’s annual weeklong June celebration, Rosefest, and the event was a success.

This year’s Rosefest featured events including a Medallion Hunt, a 5K Run for the Roses, a golf tournament, and a Superhero Carnival for kids. Without the staff to monitor and manage distancing and masking at large-scale events that could draw up to 20,000 people, however, the city’s Rose Parade and the July 4th Party in the Park — including the annual fireworks display over Bennett Lake in Central Park — were postponed until the summer of 2022.

“The events went very well,” Brokke says. “People were anxious to be back out participating. They were thrilled to have it all back, to see their neighbors again and to connect with one another.” Planning started in February, and Brokke and Johnson met with state health department officials for advice. An early decision was to book the band that plays at the event’s Teddy Bear Concert for two sets to allow families to better spread out.

“The city of Roseville has erred on the side of caution,” says Brokke. “Safety is the number one priority. The community expects us to make sure events are run safely.”

The Touch a Truck event typically held on the same day as the Teddy Bear Concert was moved to a different day to avoid a large influx of people. It also took place in a less busy location that allowed for better traffic flow. For the superhero event, families had to register ahead of time so organizers had a sense of how many people would attend.

Brokke and Johnson believed attendees would be responsible and respectful, but “when you have giant crowds, some of that can go out the window,” Johnson says.

The two talked with city staff and volunteers ahead of time about potential problem areas. For example, with the run fun — 5K this year, as opposed to the usual 10K — masks were recommended at the start, then runners could pocket their masks during the run. Yet staff watched for clusters of unmasked people and encouraged them to spread out.

“Our staff are pretty well trained on what do when you start to have something that you feel like is a crowd forming,” Johnson says.

In general, Roseville followed the state’s guidance that continues to recommend masks for people who are unvaccinated.

Proactive approach for Park Rapids summer events

The City of Park Rapids took a novel approach to their summer events.

Park Rapids granted their parade and festival permits in late March and early April, but conditioned them on the governor’s orders. When the governor’s order was rescinded later in the spring, events were allowed to proceed.

“We were being proactive and wanted to respond to the community as much as possible,” says Park Rapids City Administrator Angel Weasner.

The city held its first free, weekly summer concert series, 2nd St. Stage, on June 24 and the event went well, says Weasner. Over 1,000 people attended the outdoor concert, but they were well distanced. The city also installed plenty of handwashing stations and provided individual bottles of hand sanitizer for attendees.

The city’s July 4th parade proceeded as normal this year, and the length of the parade, around 10 blocks, allowed attendees to space out. “We asked people to maintain distancing as much as possible,” Weasner says.

Despite record attendance, Montevideo’s Fiesta Days felt safe

One of the floats in the parade held during Montevideo’s 2021 Fiesta Days. Photo courtesy Montevideo American News.

Montevideo’s annual Fiesta Days in mid- June also went off without a hitch.

Officials and residents alike were eager for the event after its 75th anniversary was canceled last year. “People have had a caged feeling,” says Robb Jepma, president of the event’s planning committee. “At the event, they were uplifted.”

Despite record attendance, Jepma says that safety at the event was good, and attendees made use of the extra sanitation stations the city decided to provide.

“It all went really well,” he says.

This year, the committee chose not to have bouncy houses, the maze, and the petting zoo it usually features. The decision behind that was fueled by concerns about keeping unvaccinated children distanced from each other.

“The majority of people I’ve talked to from ages 45 to 70 have already gotten both of their shots,” Jepma says. “But it’s the younger ones we were wondering about.”

Holdingford invests in handwashing station

In Holdingford, organizers of the city’s annual Holdingford Daze, held this year on July 9 and 10, also decided to put part of their festival budget toward a large handwashing station they hadn’t had in the past. They rented the station from the same company that provides Port-A-Pottys for the event.

The event’s coordinator, Robb Berscheid, and team decided to keep all of the typical events, which are held outdoors, in place. That included the Friday car show, softball and volleyball tournaments, 5K run, tractor pull, petting zoo, street dance, and fireworks. The event’s parade — along a long route that lends itself to distancing — also proceeded.

“We’re running pretty much like a normal year this year,” Berscheid says. No masks were required at the event, which normally draws over 1,000 attendees.

“People were able to make their own decisions,” says Berscheid. “Those more concerned or at higher risk could decide to stay home. But everyone was excited to have it back.”

Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.