While the number of community events cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to grow, there is some hope on the horizon that a handful of fall events will be able to take place.
On Thursday night the Highlands Board of Commissioners approved the usage of Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park for a number of events ranging from the weekly farmers market, to a scaled-down version of the Highlands Food and Wine Festival in November.
David Bock, with Highlands Festivals Inc., outlined the plan for a two-day festival in November that would replace the usual four-day Food and Wine Festival for 2020.
“We had previously received permission to use the park for the Food and Wine festival for our dates in November and what we are asking for now is to get the okay to plan an event for the Nov. 13-14 dates,” Bock said. “This event would feature live music and while there wouldn’t be the traditional open-air vendors of previous years, there would be some form of food and beverages available.”
Bock explained that the ticketed event would be limited to 1,000 people, which is below the capacity of the park, in order to allow for social distancing and crowd management.
“The park’s actual capacity based on the square footage is closer to 2,000, but when we began planning this event the previous police chief asked that we keep it at 1,000 and we agreed to do that,” Bock said. “We feel like that is a manageable number for this year.”
Town commissioner Amy Patterson questioned the social distancing aspect of the event and also asked if guests will be issued facemasks upon entrance to the festival.
Bock replied that Highlands Festivals Inc. is prepared to follow whatever the state guidelines are at the time of the event, up to and potentially including, pulling the plug on the festival all together if having a large gathering is prohibited due to COVID-19.
“We are asking for permission to use the park, fully understanding that we don’t know what the landscape is going to look like a month from now, let alone five months from now,” Bock said. “If the governor, or the local health department, or whoever says the festival can’t happen we are prepared to shut it down. We just need to plan as if it will be allowed.”
Bock added that organizers will begin immediately looking for musical talent and lining up food/beverage vendors for the festival. A stage will be set up on the 4th Street end of Founders Park with a sound system that is capable of handling musical acts that require more equipment that can fit on the park’s stage.
Commissioner Mark Hehn voiced opposition to the event and advised the board not to make a decision regarding the use of the park until July or later.
“Every medical professional I’ve talked to has advised against approving or planning large events for at least another month,” Hehn said. “Even on my walk today, I was stopped by a citizen that asked me to not approve events that are going to bring people to town and create large gatherings.”
Ultimately, the board approved the proposal from Highlands Festivals Inc. by a 4-1 vote with Hehn casting the dissenting vote.
Highlands Performing Arts Center Executive Director Mary Adair Trumbly asked the board to approve two dates in September for the PAC to host ticketed concert events at Founders Park.
Due to current COVID-19 restrictions, the PAC can’t host any large gatherings and it’s unclear when the facility may be allowed to reopen at full capacity.
“Originally, I was going to pitch three concert dates, but it looks like the third event is not going to happen,” Trumbly said. “So I am asking to use the park on Sunday, Sept. 6 and Sunday, Sept. 27 for a pair of concerts.”
Trumbly added that the COVID-19 regulations have cost the PAC most of the 2020 season already and having two events would be a big step toward salvaging the end of the performance calendar.
She noted that concerts at the PAC traditionally draw roughly 250 people, but using the park would allow for as many as 500 tickets to be sold.
Parks and recreation director Lester Norris advised the board that it is town policy not to close the park for ticketed events on holiday weekends, which would include the Sept. 6 date (Labor Day weekend).
Ultimately the board approved the two dates Trumbly proposed by a 4-1 vote, with Hehn being the dissenter.
Mountaintop Art and Craft Show
The final group to approach the board regarding approval for a fall event was the Highlands Mountaintop Art and Craft Show, which asked for use of Founders Park on Aug. 29-30.
Organizer Tucker Chambers told the board that there is a plan in place to handle a large crowd during COVID-19 and that he has worked with Norris to take necessary precautions.
“Normally, our vendor spaces are 10 feet wide, but this year each space is going to be 16 feet wide to allow for distancing between vendors,” Chambers said. “With that amount of spacing we are looking at 70-80 vendors being allowed.”
Chambers added that facemasks will be handed out at the entrance to the event and there will be hand sanitizer stations located throughout the park. The main walkways will be 12 feet wide to allow for a more-spaced flow of patrons.
Patterson asked how many people traditionally attend the show, and how large crowds will be managed to maintain social distancing.
“We see roughly 250-300 people at one time, but it’s a fluid process because people come and go,” Chambers said. “At peak time, I don’t think there will be more than 300 or so, which is well within the capacity of the park.”
A motion to approve the art and craft show passed 4-1 with Hehn casting the dissenting vote.