In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, safety and mass gatherings are an uneasy mix. The threat of COVID-19 hovers over any crowded place, particularly when face-covering orders and social distance recommendations are not observed.
Organizers of the annual Fiesta San Antonio celebrations were optimistic the coronavirus curve would have flattened enough by fall to hold the postponed festival Nov. 5-15, but the recent spike in local cases has caused many to question whether any large events can safely be held.
“We are having conversations with Fiesta Commission officials and will be announcing a decision soon,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Wednesday, having suggested that word on whether a November Fiesta will happen might arrive as soon as Friday.
Whether or not Fiesta, A Night In Old San Antonio (NIOSA), and other related events go on as scheduled this fall, “it’s not going to be like before,” said Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, a local epidemiologist who is consulting with the Conservation Society of San Antonio on how large events might be scaled back for pandemic safety.
“We’re not going to be able to gather in very large groups for a very long time,” she said.
Organizations are making “Plans A, B, and C,” Rohr-Allegrini said, to account for various scenarios involving different safety levels reflected by coronavirus data.
Conservation Society President Patti Zaiontz said a modified NIOSA might harken back to the earliest days of the annual festival, which began in 1938 as a one-night festival honoring the harvest and held in the fall season.
“It would really be part of us revisiting our own organizational cultural heritage to go back to doing something in the fall,” she said.
According to its own historical account, the first NIOSA made $336.11 to benefit the Conservation Society. Growing each year in popularity and attendance, the 2019 event brought in $1.4 million for preservation efforts throughout the city, along with education and advocacy programs.
The NIOSA history page also says “some things don’t change!,” emphasizing a balance of traditions with growth. Rohr-Allegrini suggested both NIOSA traditions and the habits of regular attendees would indeed have to change.
“We have to modify our traditions a little bit,” she said.
Another Texas tradition, the State Fair of Texas, was canceled earlier this week because of concerns that the coronavirus pandemic won’t have subsided enough by late September to hold the fair.
Fiesta Commission officials have said they are working with the City of San Antonio to prioritize safety. The Fiesta Commission did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication of this story.
A pandemic-modified festival, with regulated attendance and the variety of food offerings reduced to only a few top favorites, would be “a way of embracing the cultural traditions that we have in a way that is not how we usually do it,” Rohr-Allegrini said. “So we’re not necessarily setting aside traditions. We’re rethinking how we engage them.”
Some beloved traditions, like chicken-on-a-stick and bongo k-bobs, would remain in any scenario, Zaiontz said, but festivalgoers might be in their cars following a guided tour with intermittent stops for historical information, food, and possibly a take-home cocktail kit, another NIOSA favorite. Another possible scenario is a one-way guided walking tour through Maverick Plaza and La Villita limited to family groups to maintain strict social distancing.
The best-case scenario Zaiontz said, would be a festival about one-third normal size in attendance, normally 85,000 attendees over its four-night run, with a probable reduction in festival days. That’s if coronavirus case numbers subside by Labor Day, considered the deadline for facilitating NIOSA preparations, she said.
In any case, “It’s going to be very different, and people need to understand that,” Rohr-Allegrini said, comparing potential options to “a garden party.”
“Everybody’s trying to be fluid and trying to remain optimistic in such difficult times, and think about something fun and good,” Zaiontz said. “But how do we do that safely and practically?”
Since NIOSA is held on City-owned property, Ziaontz said the Conservation Society must abide by the mayor’s eventual decision and observe any potential limits on crowd sizes and safety measures.
“Plan Z,” Zaiontz suggested, might be temporarily rebranding as a harvest festival and relocating to property owned by the Conservation Society or another Fiesta membership organization.
“If that’s what took place,” she said, “we’re willing to champion for bringing joy and celebration to the people of San Antonio, which we’ve always done. And telling the story of the history of San Antonio. We have a lot of inspirational ideas.”