Update: The Columbia City Council approved the dinner by a 4-3 vote on March 16.
The popular Gervais Street Bridge Dinner is back come May 2 — at least on half of the bridge.
The fundraising event has been a hit since its debut six years ago, and now the organization Carolina Together is set to host its first version of the event since it purchased the rights. The outdoor event, which plans to host roughly 1,000 people, has already secured approval from West Columbia’s City Council and awaits a decision from Columbia Council on March 16.
The group is committed to hosting the event regardless of Columbia’s ultimate decision, said Neil Boone, a contractor handling communications for the group.
“We’re expecting a yes, we’re hoping for a yes. We have no reason to think there would be pushback from the city,” he said. “We’re still moving forward with half the bridge even if the City of Columbia gives us a ‘no.’ ”
Carolina Together joins a small group of local organizers planning to host larger events amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Rosewood Crawfish Festival has plans to also take place in May, and others, like Blythewood’s Doko Rib Fest, are happening this month.
However, not all events are following suit. The March tradition St. Pat’s in Five Points nixed plans for a festival this year.
“We actually opened the nonprofit in the midst of the pandemic when the Bridge Dinner was supposed to happen last year,” said Stephanie Amaker, Carolina Together’s executive director. The group bought the rights to the event from Soda City Friends, the nonprofit arm of the group that runs the downtown's weekly Soda City market and organized the previous dinners.
“This will be our first big event that we are hosting."
Columbia City Council Member Howard Duvall said the council preliminarily reviewed the Gervais Street Bridge Dinner and other potential events at its last meeting — though he noted specific details were not available at that time. The dinner raised the most questions from members, he said.
“I'm not sure May is the time we need to start having an event like that where so many people are together, it may just be better to go back to the traditional (date),” he explained, referring to the Gervais Street Bridge Dinner's traditional fall timing.
Still, Duvall cautioned against reading too far into his concerns and was wary to predict a council decision.
“I don’t know if they would get to the level that we would deny the permit request,” he said.
Duvall said he’s following federal guidance about when to allow events, referring to the benchmark of waiting for positive testing rates to drop below five percent for two consecutive weeks, which has been pushed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as it applies to reopening schools.
“We will follow the advice of the health experts and our city staff as to whether they think it's an appropriate event and has the precautions for the citizens that participate,” he explained. “We will be opening back up eventually and by the fall of the year we may be getting closer."
When asked why Carolina Together feels comfortable planning for the event at this stage in the pandemic, Boone pointed to various safety protocols they will enforce, including selling tickets by the table instead of individual seats and required temperature checks. He cited the recent downward trend in case numbers in South Carolina and growing vaccination efforts as reasons why the organization decided to move forward.
The May event will also be a “make-up” for the cancelled 2020 version of the event, Boone explained, and the group is planning to host another dinner come October, he explained. He acknowledged the replacement nature of the May event makes it feel rushed and that they’re still “smoothing out folds.”
“I know 1,000 does seem like a large amount of people, but we are trying to do everything on our end to minimize risk,” Boone elaborated. “From our standpoint, we want to make sure everybody is safe.”
The relatively new Carolina Together plans to host other events moving forward, Amaker said.
Beneficiaries for the group's efforts will be determined on a by-event basis, she explained. The beneficiary for the Gervais Street Dinner has yet to be selected.
Carolina Together has yet to fully be certified as a nonprofit by the state. Amaker detailed that the organization is awaiting finalizing paperwork on the state level.
Tickets for the dinner will be available in the “coming weeks” and will be sold by the table, which seats eight. The cost will be roughly $1,000 a table, Amaker said.