Will Edmonton festivals return this summer?

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Will festivals return to Edmonton this summer?
Throughout the pandemic, Edmontonians have been told to avoid large crowds — which means the traditional festivals the city prides itself on were a no-go this past year. But with more and more people getting vaccinated, could the events return in a few months? Sarah Ryan looks into that. – Mar 8, 2021

For nearly a year, people have been told to avoid large crowds, but as more vaccines roll out, some are hopeful festivals, concerts and other large events in Edmonton could resume as early as this summer.

Jim Gibbon is the executive director of Edmonton’s Heritage Festival, a celebration of the city’s multiculturalism through food, dance and art.

“The plan is to go ahead if there (are) enough shots in arms. I pray we can do it,” he said Monday.

READ MORE: 2020 Edmonton Heritage Festival cancelled due to COVID-19

“Especially with what’s going on in the world right now, we need these kinds of events. These sorts of anti-racism events are really important right now.”

But there are considerable challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival takes place each year in Hawrelak Park.

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“It’s such a big space. To fence it off and to control the entry and egress, I don’t know how we would do it,” Gibbon explained.

Still, he and his team are forging ahead, planning for a modified festival with masks and social distancing.

“We’re going to keep the number of pavilions down. People will be much more spread out, for sure, if they’re on site,” he said.

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Plus, tickets for food and drinks would all move online.

“If we can get rid of the whole ticketing system and everything is done electronically, it’s a lot more expensive but it takes out all the personal interactions at the ticketing space,” Gibbon said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus forces Edmonton-area festivals to cancel 2020 events

The organizers of Taste of Edmonton are just as optimistic, planning for a festival back at Churchill Square again this summer.

“We’ve got a six-foot gap between each of the restaurant tents, promoting additional social distancing,” explained general manager Donovan Vienneau.

A capacity tracker would be added to the food festival’s website so people know if there’s space available inside the fences or not.

Normally, the capacity would be around 8,000 people, but group gathering restrictions could restrict that further.

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In the past, Taste of Edmonton has drawn between 250,000 and 350,000 people over the course of 11 days.

As for entertainment, that would also look different in 2021 if Taste of Edmonton gets the approval to operate.

But not all festival organizers are keen to push forward with plans to run large events so quickly.

Terry Wickham, producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, said he’s doubtful massive concerts will be allowed in Gallagher Park in 2021.

“We really should have the lineup together now, but I really think the likelihood of the festival happening is so small,” he said.

“It has to be fully safe or not. It has to be fun or not. I just can’t see it.”

He said Folk Fest faces additional challenges, including getting international artists across borders.

“I’ve been advising U.S. agents to find other dates in the States because they’re quite far ahead in their vaccinations, so they may be open a lot earlier than we are,” he said.

Plus, Wickham said there’s a lot of uncertainty around group gathering limits.

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“I doubt that audiences of 25,000 will be able to gather by July,” he said.

As an option, Folk Fest is contemplating hosting smaller concerts, potentially with artists just from Western Canada.

But planning a full-scale music festival could be disastrous to the festival’s bottom line, Wickham said. He said if restrictions changed at the last minute, it could spell disaster.

“All of a sudden, we would be on the hook for millions of dollars of costs, which effectively would bankrupt the festival,” he explained.

While no official decision has been made, Folk Fest is setting its sights on 2022.

“It’s disappointing, but hey, we’re near the end of this, so we just have to hang in there and get through it,” Wickham said.

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