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Charleston Wine + Food Festival cancels 2021 event over coronavirus concerns

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The Wine + Food Festival will not take place next year. File/Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

The Charleston Wine + Food Festival, typically held in March each year, will not take place in 2021 due to coronavirus concerns. 

The festival was set to return March 3-7. 

The executive director of Charleston Wine + Food, which puts on the festival, said the decision was made after considering many options, but it didn't seem possible in the current health crisis.

Planning for the next year's festival typically begins in the spring, almost immediately after the event wraps, and ticket sales are usually launched by late summer, said Gillian Zettler, who heads up the organization that oversees the festival.

"The idea of talking to restaurants about a festival or any live event right now doesn't appear to be realistic," Zettler said. "They are just trying to keep their doors open and their employees cared for right now."

She added, "It's just not us and the consumer. There are hundreds and hundreds of others to consider. There are many layers to the onion despite the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic."

It is the first major Charleston area festival to announce a decision to cancel its 2021 events this year. 

The safety of guests and participating talent, staff and vendors was listed by the board of directors in a statement as a major factor in the announcement, which comes seven months before the event was set to occur. 

City of Charleston spokesman Jack O'Toole said officials sympathized with the festival's decision. 

"With respect to other area festivals scheduled for next year, we simply don't know what the situation with COVID-19 will be at that time, and will remain in close contact with (the state Department of Health and Environmental Control) and area medical professionals to ensure that city guidance continues to be based on the best available safety information," O'Toole said. 

During the past 15 years, the Charleston Wine + Food Festival has grown to encompass more than 120 events over five days and welcomes nearly 28,000 guests annually.

The event has become one of the city’s biggest tourism draws of the year.

In 2019, it brought nearly 12,000 out-of-town guests to Charleston. Over five days, Wine + Food had an economic impact of $18.6 million. Attendees spent an average of $955, and the festival generated $2.8 million in taxes.

While the festival’s loss is a deep blow to an industry still struggling to bring back visitors and grow hotel occupancy because of the coronavirus pandemic, the region’s top tourism booster, Explore Charleston CEO Helen Hill, said Thursday she thought festival organizers made a good decision.

Because of the long lead time that’s required to produce the festival, Hill said, it makes sense that it won’t be possible to make those preparations now.

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“I think they made a good decision because there are so many unknowns right now,” Hill said.

That uncertainty would make it much more difficult for organizers to pull off the “high quality event that people are used to,” she said.

Jill Maynard, executive director of the Charleston Hospitality Association, which is a merged group from the former Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, said news of the Wine + Food cancellation caught them off guard.

"I'm not prepared to speak to that," she said Thursday.

The Hospitality Association is a separate entity from the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Maynard said. 

In place of the in-person 2021 festival, the Wine + Food board revealed a plan to uplift the food community and continue "efforts of making Charleston Wine + Food a more inclusive and equitable organization" through community partnerships, digital content, live-streamed conversations and events, and a late-spring launch of the 2022 festival programming and schedule. 

In recent months, Charleston Wine + Food has been criticized by racial justice advocates and activists, despite the board's call for the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue and use of its digital platform to uplift Black culinary professionals. 

The organization has since elaborated on plans to take substantive steps to address its shortcomings in the realm of equity and inclusivity, including making intentional efforts to add members of color to the board and staff. 

The 2020 festival took place just before the pandemic shuttered businesses and canceled events throughout South Carolina. In fact, the first two coronavirus cases in the state were announced publicly by DHEC in March while the Wine + Food Festival was running in Charleston. 

As cases continued mounting earlier this year, several other high-profile festivals in the Charleston area canceled events, including the High Water Festival, the Volvo Car Open, the Flowertown Festival and the Bridge Run, as well as both the Piccolo Spoleto and Spoleto arts festivals. 

The Charleston Pride Festival, set to take place next month, has been postponed to the fall of 2021. 

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 positive tests continue to be reported each day in South Carolina by DHEC. The latest numbers provided by the state health department show nearly 100,000 positive COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the state this year and more than 1,800 people in this state have died from the virus. 

Charleston has reported more positive cases than any other county in the state. 

Warren WiseEmily Williams and Mikaela Porter contributed to this report. 

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

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