Silent spring: Coronavirus stifles Des Moines' post-winter celebrations
Take a look inside the Iowa State Fair, a tradition in presidential politics. Des Moines Register
Correction: The Des Moines Arts Festival is still on.
Brisk spring Saturday mornings at the Downtown Farmers' Market. Booming music festivals downtown. Sticky afternoons at the Iowa State Fair.
It's hard to imagine Des Moines without them. But the coronavirus outbreak spreading across the state has already forced the cancellation or postponement of several of central Iowa's traditional spring and summer events, and is threatening others.
It's a blow to a community that packs the warmer half of the year with festivals, fairs and other outdoor gatherings.
"Des Moines has this rich culture of going out and doing things in the summer," said Kristen Meyers, an event planner who works with multiple festivals. "I think that we take every sunny, beautiful day that we can because half the year is cold and dreary."
Catch Des Moines, the metro's convention and visitors bureau, estimates canceled or delayed conventions and sporting events over the next few months already have resulted in the loss of more than $35 million in expected revenue for the community. That figure doesn't include gatherings like concerts and festivals, which Catch Des Moines does not track.
The economic benefits of hosting a gathering go far beyond venue rental fees and tourism taxes. On its own, the World Pork Expo, held in early June, has a $16.3 million impact on the community, according to Catch Des Moines President Greg Edwards. But on March 31, the organizers canceled the event due to coronavirus concerns — and that means some 20,000 people associated with one of the Midwest's biggest industries won't be making their annual pilgrimage to the capital city.
"You always have to keep in mind the ripple effect that this has. These events are more than just events," Edwards said. "Visitors eat in our restaurants, they stay in our hotels, they spend money in our shops."
For massive summer staples, that ripple effect is likely to be even larger — and the consequences of cancellations more far-reaching. The Iowa State Fair, one of the largest and longest-running events in the state each summer, hosts hundreds of food and merchandise vendors and regularly draws over a million visitors over its 11-day run, making it a formidable economic ecosystem on its own.
State Fair CEO and Manager Gary Slater estimated that organizers will need to make a decision on whether to hold the fair by early to mid-June.
The increasingly barren schedule of upcoming events in Des Moines is a graphic illustration of the uncertainty of the next few months. Most late spring and early summer events already have been delayed or canceled due to the possibility that social distancing will continue through the start of festival season. Meanwhile, large end-of-summer festivities are in limbo, their organizers unable to make firm commitments as they face an unpredictable future.
'Just too soon'
Nothing says summer in Des Moines like the Downtown Farmers' Market. Each Saturday, it hosts nearly 300 vendors selling fresh produce, crafts and coffee. The market, which typically starts the first weekend in May, usually boasts 25,000 visitors.
But with social distancing guidelines in effect until April 30 in Iowa, which advise against holding gatherings of more than 10 people, the massive weekly street party is off "until restrictions are lifted," according to a statement on the market's website.
Courtney Shaw, vice president of communications for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said market organizers are working with the farmers and craftspeople waiting to sell their wares.
It's the same story for the Drake Relays, a late April tradition. The track competition and its related festivities — the Beautiful Bulldogs contest, Grand Blue Mile and Drake Road Races — were postponed indefinitely in mid-March.
And a look through the Wells Fargo Arena website reveals a list of canceled and postponed events through April. Coronavirus has affected everything from the Harlem Globetrotters to Michael Bublé. Cher, whose April 16 show would have been one of the biggest of the year, now won't appear until Sept. 28.
The next event still scheduled is a Joe Rogan stand-up comedy show on May 15. And there's still no word about Elton John's long sold-out "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" show, scheduled for June 11.
Even some events that take place in the early summer, after current social distancing guidelines end, have been rescheduled.
CelebrAsian, a two-day Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage festival that normally kicks off the summer festival season, and Capital City Pride Fest, a weekend celebration of LGBTQ culture, have moved their festivities to later in the year.
Dan Jansen, president of Capital City Pride, said his team has been watching federal and state guidelines while taking hints from other Pride festivals across the nation. The Pride Fest is now scheduled for mid-July, a month later than its original date. Jansen said the group has another fallback plan if the July target doesn't work.
"Ultimately, we are a community organization. We do want to ensure the safety of the community," Jansen said. "But we also want to enable the fact that, at some point, the community will want to be together in person to celebrate."
Nu Huynh, executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance, said CelebrAsian's Memorial Day weekend date was "just too soon" to safely gather a crowd. She said that while organizers are aware of an increase of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. based on the coronavirus' origin in China, concerns about xenophobia did not prompt the delay.
"If anything, it's the opposite. We definitely want to show our strength and resiliency, and that Iowans are better than that," Huynh said.
Huynh and several other event organizers said they were struggling to organize event sponsors as local and national businesses deal with the pandemic.
Emily Steele, an organizer for the nonprofit musical festival 80/35, said corporate sponsorships began to fall off as the coronavirus crisis ramped up. The combination of that and uncertainty that Iowans would purchase tickets led 80/35 to cancel its July downtown gathering of Iowa and national performers.
"We just couldn't guarantee that we would have the funds from the ticket sales to secure the acts," Steele said. "And on top of that, knowing that corporate sponsors, they're also going through some financial instability or some questioning of if they can give away funds. No one really said that, but it got quiet."
Later events: Wait and see
Several summer staples remain in limbo — not yet canceled or delayed, but with only so long before decisions must be made.
Anne Lawrie, marketing director for the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, said there will be a decision April 15 about whether the nation's largest annual bike tour will happen as scheduled in mid-July. There's a complex checklist of things to organize, from merchandising to logistics along the route.
RAGBRAI brings thousands of cyclists together to ride, party and camp in close proximity to one another for an entire week. Lawrie said that, if the current prohibitions on mass gatherings stay in effect, RAGBRAI will be forced to comply and cancel.
The factors challenging RAGBRAI go beyond crowd size: The financial strain of coronavirus on host towns may also influence the decision. The planned RAGBRAI route has overnight stops in six towns across the state, each of which must be able to feed and offer accommodations to the riders.
"We're also looking at the community's ability to plan and put on the events from a fundraising perspective, from a food and vendor perspective and from a housing perspective," Lawrie said. "Can we raise the money we need to raise in order to pay for the events in each of those towns? That's a community decision."
Iowa's Ride, a new, similar ride scheduled for the week before RAGBRAI, also is waiting for the situation to clarify before making a call.
"Like most other events, we are carefully monitoring the evolving situation of COVID-19," Iowa's Ride Director TJ Juskiewicz wrote in an email. "Our top priority is the safety of the public, our riders, support drivers, volunteers and others that would work the event."
Hinterland, the eclectic annual music festival in St. Charles, is also waiting and watching. Festival owner Sam Summers said he's closely monitoring news on the virus, but he said his confidence level is "very, very high" that it will be safe to hold the three-day festival in late July.
And then there's central Iowa's crown jewel: the Iowa State Fair, which is scheduled for Aug. 13-23. Slater, the CEO and manager of the fair, said the staff is proceeding under the assumption that the fair will happen.
"It's too early to speculate about August," Slater said. Cancellations for May and June events are understandable, he said, "but things in July and August, it's not time to make those decisions based on the data and information that we have."
Slater estimated that organizers would make a decision on holding the fair in the next 60 to 75 days. He said fair organizers and vendors need time to order merchandise to sell, and June is the longest many of them can wait before shipping times would interfere with business.
"We're just trying to delay things to that drop-dead date of, you know, if you have to have tickets printed in order to sell them at the front gate, what is the last date you could order them and get them here in time for the fair?" Slater said.
The precedents for canceling the fair are a reminder of the scope of the global pandemic. In the 166 years since the first fair, the only times it hasn't been held are during the four years of World War II and during the Spanish-American War in 1898, when it also faced competition from the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, a world's fair in Omaha.
Gathering in a post-coronavirus world
Event organizers said that even if the pandemic subsides before the warm weather does, they aren't sure how an event following months of social distancing will go. But they all agreed it wouldn't be business as usual.
"I truly believe the world will not be the same when we're out of the pandemic and the crisis mode," Slater said. "The world will have changed; we all will have changed; you will have changed, as I."
Slater said the State Fair would consider limiting crowds inside buildings and providing more hand sanitizer. Several other event organizers brought up similar mitigation strategies.
But even with hand sanitizer and a new focus on public health, attendance at large events is hard to predict. Iowans might be excited to socialize, but they may also emerge from isolation shy of traveling and spooked by crowds.
Edwards of Catch Des Moines looked on the bright side, saying hesitation around travel may be a boon for central Iowa. Tourists can visit by car, rather than taking a plane.
"There's going to be still some hesitancy out there from people all across the world on traveling," he said. "So many of our visitors do come from a 250-, 300-mile radius around Des Moines. So that's where we can really make an impact of letting people know, 'Hey, we're open. We've got great things happening here.'"
And after months indoors and with minimal social contact, perhaps festivals — even if they're a few months later than usual — will be exactly what Iowa needs. Meyers, an organizer working on Pride Fest and 80/35, thinks so.
"For me, working in festivals is a way of bringing so many different kinds of people together and giving them a chance — and I'm sure we're all really excited to do this — to get out of their house and stop playing video games."
Status of some major spring and summer events
- Mission Creek Festival, April 1-4: canceled
- Drake Relays, April 22-25: delayed
- Downtown Farmers' Market, May 2: delayed
- Celebrasian, May 22-23: delayed
- World Pork Expo, June 3-5: canceled
- Capital City Pride Fest, June 12-14: delayed
- Des Moines Arts Festival, June 26-28: still on
- 80/35, July 10-11: canceled
- Iowa's Ride, July 12-18: still on
- The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, July 19-25: still on
- Italian-American Heritage Festival of Iowa: July 24-25: canceled
- Hinterland, July 31- Aug. 2: still on
- Iowa State Fair, Aug. 13-23: still on
This article has been edited to show that the Des Moines Arts Festival is still scheduled to be held June 26-28.
Katie Akin is a retail reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 515-284-8041. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.
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