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Virus “devastating” to Tucson's typically robust festival season
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Virus “devastating” to Tucson's typically robust festival season

After the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association decided to cancel its winter street fair, creative director Monique Vallery and her colleagues started making their way down a list of 500 artists, vendors and partners, calling each one to notify them of the decision.

It was part of “rough week” in a “devastating” year for the organization, which not only had to cancel its spring street fair, but has continued to deal with lower revenues spurned by the coronavirus pandemic at the 140 boutiques, bars and restaurants in the North Fourth Avenue historic corridor.

“We are feeling the fallout from that a little bit, but we want to do what’s best and right for our community,” said Vallery, who pointed out that 98% of their budget funding comes from the two fairs. “It’s crushing to watch our local businesses, and ours being one of them, being decimated. But in the same token, we’ve never experienced something like this.”

Over the next few months, Tucson’s streets will be abnormally empty during Tucson’s festival season, typically a six-month stretch that includes the city’s premier festivals, trade shows and cultural gatherings. Dozens of events have already been canceled, like the street fairs, postponed, like the El Tour De Tucson, or moved online, like the All Souls Procession or the Tucson Festival of Books, as organizers, government officials, and attendees shy away from gatherings that could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

In order to develop a path for the events to be continued in person, the Pima County Health Department, in conjunction with the city and county, earlier this month released a special-event permit application to handle an executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey that limits gatherings of more than 50 people. The 13-page application includes questions about physical distancing, hygiene requirements and attendance limits.

“It made sense to develop a form that helped guide people’s thinking, so that they would be able to go through that process to come up with a mitigation plan,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county’s health director, adding that the criteria were developed based on conversations with other cities both in and out of Arizona, and expert guidance.

She added that things could change, based on trends throughout the community, but also based on the type of event.

“We understand that even though we’re going to have overarching guidance, when there are specific types of events, we are going to have develop additional guidance,” she said.

“It’s devastating for all of us”

Despite the efforts, officials acknowledged it’s unrealistic to expect that the festival season, particularly in the spring, will go on as normal. There are between 30 and 60 premier shows and festivals during the stretch, depending on how you count them. Plus smaller ones, like sporting events and concerts. Tourism attractions such as golf and hiking could also be impacted.

“Tucson is evolving into a 52-week town, but the heat makes an influx of visitors come in the winter,” said Diane Frisch, Pima County’s director of attractions and tourism, who said there’s sometimes as many as seven events a weekend. “That’s the prime season for us. … With COVID, it’s devastating for all of us.”

It’s particularly devastating for a tourism industry in Pima County, where there was $2.6 billion in direct spending last year. Pima County has already seen the effects of the coronavirus on the local tourism industry, with a 35-40% drop in hotel revenues, according to Visit Tucson CEO and President Brent DeRaad, although he noted that is lower than other Western cities.

There are no estimates for exactly how much the festivals contribute to the local community, but it’s well into the millions, he said.

“All of these events, they add to our culture, they’re part of the fabric of our community. We’re sad to see them go virtual or consider that option,” DeRaad said. “But based on what we’re facing with the pandemic and the fact that there are really no guidelines in terms of past pandemic to follow, it’s difficult to determine how to best move ahead.”

Avoiding an “excessively diminished” show

The permit application was released months before Tucson’s premier event, the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, a conglomerate of about 50 shows, which draws thousands of people from around the globe. The 2019 show garnered $131 million in direct economic spending, according to a 2019 study. The 2021 show is currently scheduled for Jan. 30 to Feb. 14.

Show owners have been meeting regularly with government officials, including Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, to discuss the parameters of holding shows. They’ll each individually be required to obtain the special-event permits.

Those discussions are primarily centered on the “question of how many limbs can we cut off and feel we can still have the show we want to have,” according to Peter Megaw, co-chair of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, which is put on annually by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society.

He said that “everything is under consideration,” for their show, which not only provides opportunities to purchase gems, but also educational programming, with guest speakers from around the globe, as well as exhibits designed for kids. They may be forced to limit the total number of booths.

“We’re reluctant to put on an excessively diminished show,” he said.

Should they opt to not move forward, he acknowledged that not having the income would be a significant blow for the nonprofit, but that it was lucky last year in that it was able to sneak in its event weeks before the virus spread.

But even one person getting seriously sick or dying isn’t worth it, Megaw said.

“The cost isn’t really our principal concern here,” he said. “Our principal focus here is what is safe.”

There are no cancellations regarding the gem show and that the current dates — Jan. 30 through Feb. 15 — are still on track, said Andy Squire, a spokesman for the city. The city and the gem shows are hoping to make decisions by early next month.

“We have to balance the safety of the community, the exhibitors, the folks who participate in the show and our community — all that has to be balanced against the economic impact we would have if the show was greatly reduced or did not happen,” he said.

“Very, very painful economically”

Squire acknowledged a cancellation would be “very, very painful economically,” as it typically generates as much as $4 million for the city itself through hotel and sales taxes. But those concerns do “not outweigh the community’s health.”

“That’s been made very clear by the elected officials and leaders we’re working with,” he said.

In a joint statement, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Ramon Valadez, the chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said any events must be held “sensibly and safely.”

“All of us, collectively, have made tremendous sacrifices to get to the much better place we find ourselves today compared with the height of the pandemic during the summer months. It is by listening to science and following the guidance of our public-health experts that we were able to significantly decrease the spread of COVID-19. By continuing to follow public-health guidelines, we can avoid a resurgence of COVID-19 that will only further delay the resuming of normal activities and jeopardize all of the progress we have made thus far,” the statement said.

“We know these events are important to our local economy, and many of them raise vital funds for nonprofits and charitable organizations who help and support thousands of people in our community. Still, we believe that we can adapt to the current circumstances and celebrate many of the seasonal events that make Tucson and Pima County unique — it may just look and feel a little different moving forward.”

Vallery, of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, said she’s aware of the trickle-down effect that event cancellations would have. In addition to the organization and its vendors, no street fair means less business for bars and restaurants nearby. Then there’s the restaurant suppliers, hotels and event security. And on and on.

“We know the type of money that even the street fair was bringing into the community,” she said, pointing to the fact that the merchants group did a partially online fair after the cancellation in the spring.

She said she agrees with the stipulations imposed by the county Health Department but said her group opted to pull the plug on the event because of the special-event application, fearing there wasn’t enough time to develop a safety protocol before the fair was set to go on in December. The merchants group is going to focus on the spring street fair, currently scheduled for March 19-21.

“I’m not a health expert. We do want to do what is ever best for our community. We pride ourselves on making sure that we’re following every procedure and every rule to the highest standard. Timewise, it wouldn’t give us enough time to adhere or figure out a plan that matches what they’re looking for,” she said.

But it’s still frustrating. And hard.

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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Justin, a two-time University of Arizona graduate, covers local government, focusing on the City of Tucson. He previously worked at the Louisville Courier Journal, Arizona Republic and Hartford Courant and has received several journalism awards.

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