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In the Shade of Corona

The return of Columbia festivals and events may still be a long way off


Rosewood Crawfish Festival 2019 / photo by John Carlos

As South Carolina reopens amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Phill Blair doesn’t have to look far to gauge how people attending events might act whenever they come back.

With Gov. Henry McMaster having loosened restrictions on outdoor dining and drinking on May 4 (and doing the same for indoor seating a week later), West Columbia’s WECO Bottle and Biergarten, one of the two local establishments that Blair co-owns, softly began to allow people to once more enjoy beers outside. There was no outside promotion at first, just signs around the place that bid visitors to follow a few basic rules — such as “NO more than 8 people per table,” “Do NOT move tables” and “Maintain safe social distance, & be mindful when entering & exiting the shop.”

On May 16, Blair posted online that WECO was open for on-premise consumption. His experiment has begun, one that will help determine how happenings he helps plan — the fall’s annual Jam Room Music Festival, the Columbia Museum of Art’s quarterly Arts & Draughts parties, concerts on Boyd Plaza during downtown’s monthly First Thursday on Main art crawls — might look whenever they come back online.

“Sanitation, you’re going to have to up a little bit,” he says of how the scene will change at Jam Room’s Main Street indie rock block party. “Instead of having one or two hand-washing stations, you’ll probably have to splurge and get them everywhere. But at some point, there’s just a limit on what you can do. It becomes almost like personal responsibility of the attendee to not be stupid, which is unfortunate. That’s why here, we’re like testing letting people sit outside. ... Can people handle sitting at a table in public right now and acknowledging that there are new rules?”

This uncertainty around how crowds will act is just one variable that the organizers of festivals and other special events must consider as they figure out when to get back to business. Since the March 6 cancellation of Austin’s massively popular media and music celebration South By Southwest, virtually every prominent happening has been wiped off the calendar — including Columbia favorites like St. Pat’s in Five Points, Indie Grits, and Hip-Hop Family Day, all of which are either canceled or uncertain to happen in 2020.

Debate rages over whether the numbers we’re seeing justify South Carolina’s current easing of its COVID-19 restrictions. Those in favor of opening back up point to the way the rate of infection has plateaued, but the daily numbers reported by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control have yet to show a consistent downward trend. On May 17, 163 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported, following days that saw 276 and 232. Testing, it should be noted, has ramped up dramatically — more than 10,000 people were screened on May 16, per DHEC estimates.

As to the overall outlook for festivals and events, Armen Shaomian, a sport and entertainment management professor at the University of South Carolina and the president of the international Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association, says getting back to normal won’t come soon.

“I think we are at least a year out,” he postulates. “I think this fall, you may see some folks, based on what state or county they’re in, test some things out. It’s definitely not going to be full-scale. Forget that. If we are lucky, we are talking maybe next summer [for that].”

There are a variety of uncertain factors that impact when festival-type events might come back in earnest, Shaomian explains — national, state and local restrictions that may continue to loosen and constrict; the lack of clarity surrounding legal liability as it pertains to the virus; just how many people will be comfortable getting back out to a crowded scene and when.

The questions are many. The answers are few.

“Apparently, there are companies that [have a device where] you walk through, kind of like the scanner at the airport, but it blows some kind of cloud on you to supposedly disinfect people walking in,” Shaomian says. “But that doesn’t take the virus out of your body if you’re still coughing.”

Indeed, measures like these don’t solve the real problems at hand.

“There’s just a few too many things up in the air for our industry to get back,” Shaomian offers. “I think we’ll definitely be the last one. I feel movie theaters are definitely going to be much earlier than music festivals and such. Unless somehow it’s such a big open space and people are actually behaving so that they’re not mixing too much, so that maybe it’ll be possible.”

And it is with this murky vantage point that local event leaders begin to process their steps moving forward. Like Shaomian, they’re not at all sure what happens next.


Jam Room Music Festival 2018 / photo by John Carlos

No Time for Crawfish

As of Free Times‘ May 18 press deadline, the Rosewood Crawfish Festival’s website still indicated the festival would happen on its makeup day of June 6. But Dave Britt, executive director of the presenting Rosewood Merchants Association, all but guarantees that the event won’t be seen in 2020.

He and his team have looked at different options for moving or scaling back the festival, including doing without the music schedule that traditionally features a popular national headliner, but their options are limited.

“We had moved from the first Saturday of May. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen,” Britt offers. “So we looked at a model where we had crawfish and people could drive up and pick it up in their cars, and we sell package retail beer and stuff, but after talking to my crawfish vendors, they didn’t think we were going to pull the numbers, and that’s a huge risk for them to bring that much crawfish. Once they pull it out of the water, they only have a three-day life span, so if they don’t sell them, they’re screwed.”

Britt explains that June 6 looks like it just can’t happen. With crawfish season drying up by early July, and with the State Fairgrounds unable to fit the festival in on another weekend before then, the situation appears untenable.

The executive director also has heartburn about whether holding the event this summer would be safe, and worries about how the public might view such a move. He plans other events, and he hopes to go forward with the upcoming Rosewood Art & Music Festival, slated for October, but even in that regard, he isn’t sure.

“Things are opening up slowly, but we don’t know what the results are going to be of these massive openings,” Britt posits. “And if people start getting sick in greater numbers, then it‘s going to snap back, and beyond that, not only are we battling with the prospect of people getting sick and keeping safe, but we’re also up against public opinion. I think the population’s pretty divided 50-50 on whether they think it’s a good idea for us to be getting back to acting like things are normal, so any kind of event that comes out too soon is going to suffer from a lot of negative public perception and backlash, and it’s already hard enough to sell tickets.”

“On the one hand,” he adds, “I wonder when I go to Lowe’s and there’s a thousand-some people standing shoulder to shoulder buying dirt, what’s the difference between that and a small festival? I don’t know. But the public perception is what it is. And we are less able to regulate people, trusting people to socially distance and do the right thing.”

Boyd Plaza.jpg (copy)

Boyd Plaza is used for the Columbia Museum of Art’s Arts & Draughts and First Thursday on Main events. Photo by John Carlos

How to Pay for It

Britt and many of the other festival organizers Free Times spoke to brought up one essential logistical concern: How do you pay for your event when sponsors aren’t willing to contribute?

Many festivals, such as Doug Gainey’s Drift Jam floating music celebration on Lake Murray, depend on sponsors to pay for their programming. Indeed, he canceled the boat-bound event scheduled for May 23, not because of social distancing concerns, but because he needs to raise $70,000 to $80,000 to pay for the free-to-drive-up hullabaloo, and his regular sponsors all but disappeared.

“Right before all this hit, sponsorships started coming in pretty solidly for about two weeks,” Gainey reports, “and then once everything started shutting down, nobody responded.”

“I think it was mostly financial,” he adds of why his regular contributors didn’t chip in. “The sponsors I did talk to, they weren’t too concerned with the optics, as long as everything was running cleanly and smoothly and advertised properly. But I think the biggest issue was the financials of it. It’s hard to write a check when your business is closed down and you don’t know when it’s going to open back up or when you’re going to have capital coming back in, revenue coming back in.”

And Gainey says he’s having no trouble selling sponsorships for Land Jam, the first-year country music festival, crowned by Lonestar, that he has scheduled for Camden’s Carolina Cup race track on Aug. 8.

“Unfortunately, being a first year event, I was kind of conservative on putting the packages together, just because I didn’t know how it was going to be received,” he offers. “I didn’t want to overshoot targets on fundraising and not be able to land them and then be in a mess. So I kind of put some conservative numbers in there for our sponsor packages, and they’ve been going well. In fact, we’ve almost sold out of our top-tier sponsors.”

For Jeff March, president of Famously Hot South Carolina Pride, finances remain a crushing concern when it comes to his group’s October parade and festival

He was forced to cancel June’s newer Outfest celebration, a fundraiser for the organization, and also lost two other key cash-generating opportunities: April’s President’s Ball and the Pride in the City revenue share events it hosts at several area bars. And he, like the Jam Room Music Festival’s Blair, worries that City of Columbia and Richland County accommodations and hospitality tax payouts, long a key source of lifeblood for many local festivals, will likely be diminished due to hits taken by restaurants and hotels, and the municipalities responding by easing their financial burden.

“Our corporate sponsors that pay for this festival every year and return every year, grant funds and things like that, it’s going to be extremely hard to collect those monies right now,” March explains. “Who knows what the grant process will be with the city and with the county? We don’t know where we’re going from there right now in the fall. Our corporate sponsors have been shut down, many of them, so they’re not financially able to support like they were before. Funding might be the main factor.”

This budget uncertainty exacerbates other issues — like trying to book a headlining musical act.

“So entertainment was going to be very difficult to book at this point,” March says. “And that’s pretty much one of the main puzzle pieces is our headliners and we build around that, kinda sort of. So without that piece, we just kind of froze. The good thing with us is that I’m very fortunate that a lot of my executives and a lot of my board members have been around for a long time. We’re used to doing this, so we can sit here and say, ‘Let’s put this on hold, let’s stop, let’s come up with other ideas in our spare time, reimagine a festival, reimagine lots of options.’ We have a lot of different scenarios on paper.”

City Roots (copy)

City Roots is the site of several FT2 Productions events. Photo by Bach Pham

All Not Created Equal

Of course, not all events have the exact same concerns.

Paying for events, or figuring out their budget at a smaller scale, isn’t a worry for Vanessa Driscoll Bialobreski, managing partner and founder of the food event company F2T Productions. Her happenings are already small, reigned-in tastings and dinners that top out at about 500 people. Trimming back the capacity for even her biggest events doesn’t really necessitate a corresponding bump in ticket price. And because her company emphasizes local farms, its food supply has remained largely intact, even as some restaurants and grocery stores struggle with production shortages.

But that doesn’t mean that Bialobreski feels absolutely ready to provide the kind of enriching experience and safe environment that she wants

“Our [concern] first and foremost is the safety of our staff and our consumers,” she says. “And I don’t want to put anybody in any situation, any of my staff, where they’re uncomfortable being around that many people. So a lot of it’s going to rely on us as a team, what we decide. Everybody needs to be comfortable with being in an event situation. It’s very nerve-wracking, just to be honest. The only thing that’s certain is the uncertainty.”

She’s open to changing some things to get by in the near term whenever F2T can resume events — the next one on the calendar is July’s Drink Pink Rosé Festival, which she says has been cut to a fifth or less of its normal attendance, and could still be postponed again. She mentions putting a hold on the communal serving methods at the organization’s popular harvest dinners, and transitioning to compostable, one-use drinking vessels, plates and utensils.

“It’s heartbreaking for us because [our dinners have] always been based on bringing the community together and sitting around a table and everything sharing a family-style platter,” Bialobreski relates. “[But] I can’t hold an event and have people who don’t know each other sit at a table and pass around things on a platter. That’s insane to me right now, to think about if they don’t know each other.”

Blair, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that all of his events can be scaled down with equally satisfying results. He’s open to a version of the Jam Room Music Festival with just local bands and reduced attendance, believing it would be a welcome treat for likely-to-be stir-crazy music fans come the fall. But he doesn’t think the bumping, all-over-the-place Arts & Draughts parties will retain enough of their energy if the attendance is slashed.

“That’s one of those events where you don’t want to compromise it,” he says of the Columbia Museum of Art shindigs, ”and it being a big volume event with a thousand people in the building, it’s just not going to happen. It will happen again, but it will be 2021. I don’t think people are going to be ready to cram in a room in three or four months.”

For Blair, like all the event organizers Free Times spoke with, there’s just not enough information available right now to project any reliable timelines moving forward.

“Basically, when it’s safe,” he says of when he’ll be ready to bring his events back. “When there’s numerical data to support the idea that having an event is good, not just a governor saying, ‘Go for it.’ Which is not good enough.”

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