Citing concerns over the global coronavirus pandemic, the Fairhope City Council voted to enter an agreement to postpone the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival next weekend. The 68-year-old event draws as many as 200,000 people to the city, officials said, and it may be the largest event cancellation of its kind in the area because of the virus.
Earlier today, Providence Hospital issued a notice that the Festival of Flowers, scheduled for March 26-29 in Mobile, was canceled for the same reason and in Orange Beach, The Wharf Yacht and Boat Show announced a postponement “to a future date.”
The actions may have an influence on other large festivals scheduled in Baldwin County over the next two months, including the Elberta Sausage Fest March 28, the Baldwin County Strawberry Festival in April, and the Hangout Music Festival in May.
In Fairhope, festival organizer Lang Floyd said a postponement was unlikely, as artists tend to tour on a circuit, weather becomes more unfavorable in late spring and summer, and renegotiating a memorandum of understanding with the city for the use of its streets may be difficult.
Comparing it to the decision of whether to evacuate before a hurricane, Floyd acknowledged the festival was a “huge economic engine” for Fairhope business owners and vendors but ultimately, the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Foundation “was completely agreeable” with the city to postpone or cancel the event in the interest of health and safety.
Mayor Karin Wilson said she heard “a huge outpouring from citizens,” more than any other issue in the nearly four years she has been in office.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people say it’s an absolutely responsible call,” she said, adding “as a business person, I’ve had very large-scale events cancel for whatever reason and it’s terrible, but this isn’t about economics, it’s about our citizens.”
Four of five councilmen agreed, while Robert Brown suggested going ahead and hosting the event while “leaving it up to the individuals to determine if they want to come.”
Aside from the economic impact, Brown suggested there were a lot of unknowns about the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We do know the effect it will have if we cancel it on the individual families that receive revenue from this weekend,” he said. “That allows them to pay bills and feed their kids, so that’s the way I look at it. If you don’t want to come, don’t come.”
Council President Jack Burrell said he felt the same as recently as this morning, but as news escalates of infections, deaths and event cancellations nationwide, “I’ve changed my mind.”
“I’ve anguished over this,” he said. “There’s not a good answer here, for all the reasons stated. I’ve ran all the numbers … unfortunately we don’t have all the science, and there you have the risk factor. We would never know whether or not having the Fest caused one person to get sick.
If it was one of our loved ones, God forbid if someone passed away from that, I don’t want that on our conscience.”
The city and the festival agreed neither side would be held accountable for breaching its contract, and would enter good faith negotiations to reschedule or cancel, with no effect on the event next year.
City attorney Marcus McDowell said essentially, it was a mutual suspension of the contract.
As the council discussed the event, the Alabama Department of Public Health was holding a press conference in Montgomery. There, State Health Officer Scott Harris said although there are no known cases of COVID-19 in Alabama, fewer than 50 people had been tested.
““We are not doing testing at county health departments,” he said. “We should ask the public not to show up to county health departments, because we do not have the ability to screen you and test you in those facilities.”
Elsewhere in the United States, 42 states have confirmed 972 total cases, including 29 deaths. Around the world, there are more than 125,000 cases and 4,200 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Harris suggested postponing or cancelling all public events in the state where more than 500 people were likely to attend, but he didn’t extend the same precautions to schools or workplaces.
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