The only thing that will keep Ashley Harris from this year’s first day of San Antonio’s party with a purpose is the Fiesta parade she traditionally runs in her neighborhood of Walker Ranch.

After all, she’s got some making up to do. 

Three years ago, the woman who has embraced all things Fiesta since she kept a savings jar for it in her college days, could count on one hand the number of events she attended. “I’ll just hit it up next year,” she thought to herself. 

Then, in 2020, when Fiesta was canceled due to the pandemic, and scaled back in 2021, Harris was filled with regret. 

“As with all things pandemic, it really made you appreciate more the things that you take for granted, and Fiesta is definitely a part of that,” she said. “It makes you go ‘What if it never comes back?’”

But Fiesta is back in 2022, and by all accounts, the party is on. 

All across the city, the brightly colored papel picado is flying off store shelves, floats and booths are being constructed, new medals unveiled and calendars filled with the vivid parties, fairs and parades San Antonio has missed. 

It’s like Christmas, but make it Fiesta.

With the COVID-19 risk level marked low by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, the green light to gather is bright again. 

“The weather is great, everyone’s ready to party,” said Garrett Heath, owner of SA Flavor Medals, which designs, manufactures and sells medals and other Fiesta-themed fashions. “I think it’s gonna go nuts.” 

The San Antonio Fiesta Commission has been planning since June 2021 to bring Fiesta back to its full glory this year, said Steve Rosenauer, executive director of the Fiesta Commission since 2020. 

For the former Oyster Bake director, this year’s Fiesta will be his first full event at the helm of the commission. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” he said. “It feels good to get back to all the systems going.”

The Fiesta Commission estimates that the two weeks of events have a $340 million economic impact annually on the city and draw over 2.5 million people. That’s not counting volunteers, which number at least 75,000. 

The free flow of spending on food and drink and tickets and trinkets results in millions of dollars, boosting the budgets of San Antonio nonprofit organizations. 

Canceling and shrinking Fiesta for two years straight was a “tough decision,” Rosenauer said at the time. But San Antonio is resilient, he said. “This year we’re looking forward to a fun, full Fiesta.”

‘A light switch turned on’

If it’s anything like this year’s spring break, he might be right.

Hotel occupancy during the recent break looks to have reached close to 90%, according to early data from Smith Travel Research and Visit San Antonio, in contrast to the past two years when occupancy dropped to 40% to 60% during what is traditionally a busy tourist season in San Antonio. 

This year, downtown was bustling with tourists, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, said Richard Oliver, director of partner and community relations at Visit SA, and the theme parks and other attractions drew crowds, too. 

It felt almost normal, though Oliver hesitated to use the word in uncertain times. But tourism officials predicted a comeback for San Antonio.

“We thought that when the doors opened again, when people got out, that San Antonio would be one of those destinations they come to,” Oliver said. “And that’s been the case.”

Downtown San Antonio buzzes with activity along the River Walk during spring break. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

It’s like a light switch just turned on, said Janet Holliday, president and CEO of the CE Group. For the past few weeks, the firm has been busier than ever planning and producing events and meetings. 

Attendance at galas and other events is back to full capacity, she said, and has been constant since the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February, which regularly attracts 2 million people a year.  

“In January, everybody was nervous — people weren’t going out, but from February on, it’s just a solid calendar,” she said. “We didn’t ease back into it. [We went from] not doing it to now it’s full throttle.”

Holliday remains cautious, however, knowing the pandemic isn’t really “over,” she said. With every event CE Group plans, they are ready to pivot from in-person to virtual to some hybrid of the two. 

And while most people would rather leave their masks behind, she said, there’s a greater awareness of health protocols — for instance, staying home when sick and avoiding large gatherings indoors where the virus can spread more easily.

Caution remains

For some, it’s still too soon to Fiesta. After two years of social distancing, going elbow-to-elbow at a chicken-on-a-stick booth or crowding into the stands is anxiety-inducing. 

“I was just chatting with a gal … and she said she just felt like things were opening up a little too quickly and she was just a little concerned and she wasn’t ready to get out yet [for Fiesta],” Harris said. 

She told her friend she understood, but to remember that some Fiesta events are not as crowded as others, and many are outdoors. “There are ways to Fiesta safely in a way that I think everyone will feel comfortable with,” Harris said.

For others, the show must go on. 

On a recent Saturday, the vibrant party supply store Amols’ was buzzing and every shopping basket brimming with colorful Fiesta decor and party favors. 

“Customers are [saying] we’ve waited so long, we’re going to deck out the house even more this year,” said Jeffrey Weiss, president of the family-owned Amols’. “We’re selling it as fast as we can get it delivered. There’s just a tremendous amount of excitement.”

Even in 2021, when Fiesta was dialed down, Weiss saw business improve around the annual event, with customers determined to decorate and celebrate even without the usual parades. But it wasn’t the same, he said.

Still, it will take more than excitement for Fiesta 2022 to make up for the two years of lost sales between Fiesta and Cinco de Mayo, which is typically another big rush for Amols’. 

As a maker of Fiesta medals, Heath approached this year conservatively, creating eight medals instead of his usual 21, even though he senses medal mania is about to hit the city after two years of “darkness.” 

“Fiesta is two weeks early,” he pointed out, compared to previous years when it started in mid-April. So people may be caught off guard and slower to get out on the town. 

But, “I think people are totally catching up to it right now.”

Medals and piñatas

So far this year, Harris has picked up only one 2022 Fiesta medal. She already owns a dozen sashes covered in the tiny trophies, plus a “show sash” of her favorites, and a fillable lamp base with a hundred more. 

Ashley Harris holds a selection of her Fiesta medals collected over the last 10 years. Each year she chooses a new colored sash and at the end of the season, Harris picks her favorite medals from the year and adds them to her white “show sash.”
Ashley Harris holds a selection of Fiesta medals collected over the last 10 years. Each year she chooses a new sash and, at the end of the season, Harris picks her favorite medals from the year and adds them to her white “show sash.” Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for the San Antonio Report

She calls herself “pathetic” when it comes to her drive for medals and the citywide party she loves.

In 2020, to be cautious, Harris held a truncated version of her annual neighborhood Fiesta parade with everyone in masks and spread 6 feet apart. 

“I’ll be honest with you, it was a sad event,” she said, and she refused to do that again.

With more than a week to go to the start of Fiesta, she’s looking forward to the hat contest, float contest and pet contest she added to the neighborhood event’s lineup for this year. She’s already shopped for the piñatas. 

“I take my Fiesta very seriously,” Harris said.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.