As coronavirus restrictions continue to lift across Alaska, festival coordinators are gearing up for a season filled with social distancing and hand-sanitizing stations.
“We decided to go ahead because we feel like another year — another summer without music and then going into another whole winter — we are finding that to be pretty untenable for a lot of people,” said Jim Stearns, executive director and producer of the music festival Salmonfest.
Jim and his son, David, are moving forward with plans for Salmonfest 2021 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, which is scheduled for the first weekend of August.
There will be some differences this year. Salmonfest will be spread out over an additional 40 acres of property, Jim Stearns said. The extra acreage, which is controlled by their fiscal sponsor, ARCHES Alaska, is right next to 10 acres the festival usually takes place on.
He said they never intended the festival to get bigger, but this year they want to make sure everyone will be comfortable and able to socially distance themselves.
“If people want to play it really, really safe, they will be able to,” Stearns said. “We’re going to provide that ability.”
Nearly 9,000 people show up at the fairgrounds in a typical year, according to Stearns, but Salmonfest organizers will be monitoring the ongoing pandemic and making new assessments every two to three weeks to determine this year’s capacity. They haven’t announced the top act yet, but have quite a few others booked.
[Here are the Alaska fairs and festivals returning in summer 2021]
Also scheduled for the Kenai Peninsula this summer is the iconic Mount Marathon race in Seward, which was canceled last year due to coronavirus concerns. The race is traditionally held on the Fourth of July; this year, it’s taking place Wednesday, July 7.
The decision to move the date was made in order to spread out the volume of visitors coming to Seward over the holiday weekend, said Jason Bickling, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce. The small coastal town with a summer population of about 5,600 can draw between 20,000 and 30,000 spectators on July 4 for the combined mountain race and Independence Day celebration, he said, although “it’s hard to actually know” the exact number.
“It’s definitely a lot of people, though,” Bickling said.
Downtown streets will be closed for vendors from July 2 to July 5. There will be a boat parade on the evening of July 3, with fireworks at midnight. On the morning of July 4, Bickling said, there will be a mini-Mount Marathon race — a relay for the youngsters — with the Fourth of July parade in the afternoon.
The holiday weekend is an important part of Seward’s tourism season, Bickling said, along with the salmon derby in August.
Canceling and scaling back
But not all festivals are a go. The Girdwood Forest Fair recently announced they had pulled the plug for 2021, writing in a social media post that while they “desperately” wanted to carry the tradition on, they chose not to “out of respect for our community, our volunteers, our vendors and our patrons.”
Though vaccinations are widely available in Alaska and mask mandates and crowd restrictions are lifting, the pandemic is still too much of an ongoing risk for some event organizers.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by organizers of larger festivals in other states. South by Southwest took its events online in March and both Coachella and Stagecoach canceled April dates due to the coronavirus. Many — though not all — of the other major national festivals won’t be held until September.
For Shane Mitchell, it was a tough decision not to hold a 3 Barons Fair in Anchorage this year, but a necessary one, he said. Mitchell is a board member and one of the Renaissance fair’s founders. The event is put on by 400 to 450 volunteers, from technicians to actors like Mitchell — who plays the part of the Blue Baron — as well as those manning the front gate.
“The big deciding factor is you go, if we were responsible for at least even one death — how can we be responsible for that? We can’t have that on our conscience,’ ” Mitchell said.
In a normal year, about 4,000 people pass through the fair each day, Mitchell said.
Instead of this year’s fair, Mitchell said organizers will present a much smaller market event July 10-11. “The Crown’s Market Place” will offer food, some vendors and performances on stages at either end of “Hillshire” — the Tozier Track on Tudor Road.
“We don’t want to fool anybody into saying, ‘Oh no, it’s the 3 Barons Fair, just a month later,’ " Mitchell said. “It will be a much smaller event, but it will have the flavor of the 3 Barons Fair and a lot of the fun.”
‘The fair is going to look pretty normal’
CEO Jerome Hertel said the Alaska State Fair in Palmer suffered a “pretty huge loss” last year. The cancellation of the 2020 event was just the second in the fair’s 85-year history. Before 2020, the fair was canceled in 1942 — during World War II.
Around 80% of the organization’s revenue comes from the fair, he said. They tried to make up some of the difference with drive-in movies, virtual concerts and a harvest festival at the state fairgrounds, but are ready to have people back for the state fair again.
This year, “the fair is going to look pretty normal,” Hertel said.
In order to spread out the volume of attendees, the Alaska State Fair will extend to three weekends this year — Aug. 20 through Sept. 6 — instead of the typical two. A recently unveiled concert lineup includes Billy Idol, Martina McBride, Dashboard Confessional and Zach Williams.
Grounds will be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays: Aug. 24, 25 and 31, and Sept. 1.
In normal years, Hertel said, there are anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 attendees at the fairgrounds on weekends. On weekdays, numbers are close to 10,000, he said. Currently, the fair doesn’t have a reduced capacity limit, but there will be more hand-washing stations and hand-sanitizing stations. Hertel said the fair will also encourage social distancing and touchless transactions.
He said vendors, volunteers and fairgoers alike are eager to see Alaskans on the grounds again.
“And boy, the excitement — there’s a lot of excitement,” Hertel said.