Organizers for Fiesta and the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo intend for their events to go on this year even as the city and county remain gripped by the pandemic and Bexar County experienced its deadliest month to date in January.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff owe the rest of us answers to a couple of hard questions first: Can leaders and public health officials guarantee that the Stock Show & Rodeo, and its nightly schedule of concerts, will maintain strict public health standards over 18 days and nights from Feb. 11 to Feb. 28? Can officials guarantee the same thing for Fiesta, scheduled to take place over 11 days from April 15 to April 25?
I seriously doubt it.
Many people, it is no secret, yearn for a return to normalcy, to times before the advent of mask use, social distancing, and prohibiting large public and private gatherings. Some people openly risk their own health and the well-being of everyone they come into contact with in defiance of public health measures and the common good. Others, including myself, would rather see such events postponed until the community achieves herd immunity through vaccination of the vast majority of its adult residents.
Perhaps there is a third way, a new approach to staging annual festivals and other events without putting people at risk. Perhaps it’s time to engage San Antonio’s creative class – its artists, designers, and others – to reinvent this year’s presentation of Fiesta and the Stock Show & Rodeo.
That approach is working in at least two other regional cities with a history of showcase events. San Antonio should think about following the lead of event organizers in New Orleans, home to Mardi Gras, and Tampa, host for this year’s NFL Super Bowl.
New Orleans leaders knew business as usual this Mardi Gras would lead to yet another spike in spread of the deadly coronavirus, just like the one experienced after last year’s parades and parties. City officials and festival organizers readily agreed this time to try something very different.
The Mardi Gras floats normally seen by hundreds of thousands of paradegoers instead are taking shape in neighborhoods across the city as artists and designers have turned more than 5,000 house facades into floats. The Krewe of House Floats project will benefit victims of the pandemic and give new meaning to the phrase Parade of Homes.
I am already hearing from friends who live there about the incredible home displays that are causing people to find their own socially distanced ways of driving, pedaling, and walking through the parade-route neighborhoods to view the striking displays. There also will be virtual parades and a Joan of Arc drive-by parade in addition to other happenings designed to take place amid the pandemic.
Tampa might not have an annual festival to compete with Mardi Gras or Fiesta, but the city is no stranger to Super Bowls, and this year it has Super Bowl LV (which is #55 for those whose Roman numerics are rusty), its fifth such event. The Ray Jay, as Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is known, will not be at its 65,000 seat capacity come Sunday, Feb. 7. The traditional parties that usually envelope Super Bowl Week also will be muted.
The NFL is reserving 7,500 seats for vaccinated health care workers who will attend as guests of the league rather than pay the average $2,500 a seat that few likely could afford. The remaining 14,500 available seats will go to ticket buyers who agree to socially distant seating and wearing masks.
Both Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl will benefit COVID-impacted communities. How will the Stock Show & Rodeo and Fiesta do the same in San Antonio?
City and County officials should scrutinize local plans by both the Stock Show & Rodeo and Fiesta organizers to see how they are approaching each individual event this year. Are they attempting to stay as close to tradition as possible, or are they inviting new approaches that will not complicate efforts to contain the pandemic? Will rodeo cowboys and cowgirls by day, and concertgoers by night, really adhere to safe practices? Who will enforce them?
Anyone who took a holiday evening stroll along the downtown River Walk or attended an event like the recent world championship title fight at the Alamodome knows that a blind eye was turned. People in both settings lowered their masks and abandoned social distancing. Organizers can claim that public health practices are in place for their events, but unless they are strictly enforced they prove to be empty promises.
Vaccine supply cannot meet demand, and there are no indications that federal authorities and pharmaceutical companies will solve the problem in the near term. It will be many months before enough people are vaccinated in San Antonio to allow event planners free rein. Until then, no matter how many people are inconvenienced or angered by restrictions, officials should not make exceptions to rules meant for all of us to abide by.