by ZACH KAYSER and CHRIS ROGERS
Coronavirus has forced a number of Winona’s staple summer festivals to change how they stage their events, but organizers are determined to still show people a good time. The Winona County Fair, Boats and Bluegrass, Steamboat Days, the Great River Shakespeare Festival, Minnesota Beethoven Festival, Winona Craft Beer Tour, and Winona Main Street Program all plan to have the show go on this summer.
The Winona Main Street Program’s Touch a Truck event, which connects kids and big rigs in downtown Winona, is on for May 22, though “See a Truck” might be a better name for this year’s event. “We’re calling it Not-Touch a Truck, so ‘Touch’ with a line through it,” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom said. The Big Muddy Brew ‘n’ ‘Que is also slated for Labor Day Weekend, “crossing our fingers,” Ransom stated, while the chamber’s annual Family Night on the Farm had to be canceled. That was partly because of the size of the event and the burden COVID-era event-planning would put on the host farm. “It’s not just us,” Ransom explained. “It’s a farmer and a family that would have to bear some of that liability, and that’s just more than we wanted to ask.”
Big events take months of planning, and in this pandemic, what risks and rules might be in place months from now can be anyone best’s guess. “It’s tricky,” Ransom said. “It really, truly is. And it can be frustrating.” For the most part, the chamber planned around the current rules, with hopes that COVID-safety restrictions would be lessened, not heightened, by the time of the events, she said. For organizers, Ransom explained, “You’re constantly pivoting. So we’ve gotten to be experts, just like everybody else, at last-minute planning, last-minute pivoting.”
Maynard Johnson, president of Steamboat Days, said the event committee was still figuring out a plan based on how much the state of Minnesota relaxes its COVID restrictions. The group did hold its annual button-design contest and on May 3 intends to seek City Council approval of its detailed plans for the June event, but until then, Johnson said, “We don’t know if we can host any event.”
Asked what the group hoped to do this year, Johnson declined to specify. “I really don’t want to say that, because I don’t want people to speculate,” he said. “They’re all excited to have Steamboat Days. So are we, and we’ll do what we can, but we don’t even know what we can do with any of these events,” he continued.
Cindy Timm, president of the Winona County Fair, said they had been working on the 2021 fair almost from the moment they were forced to cancel the 2020 fair. A number of performer contracts had rolled over from 2020, she said, including an Elvis impersonator, robotic puppets, woodcarving, the petting zoo and pedal pulls. Even with those leftovers already in place, the Winona County Fair board has been meeting monthly since last year, working hard to flesh out the 2021 fair, she said. Through the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs, the organization is monitoring the capacity requirements from the state government. They’re also working with the University of Minnesota Extension to determine whether locals can exhibit livestock and keep them at the fairgrounds in static displays, or if like last year they will be required to bring their animals to the fair, have them judged, then immediately take them back to the farm.
“Really though, even though it’s three months out, some of this stuff might not get decided until closer to the fair,” Timm said.
Compared to other fairs, the Winona County Fair takes place relatively early in the year — this year, it will be July 7-11. So that gives Timm and her team even less time to plan than their colleagues who stage fairs in August.
“We’re being very mindful that we want this to be a safe event,” Timm said.
Aaron Young, Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) managing director, said this year’s shows, June 23 through Aug.1, will all be outdoors at Levee Park and Winona State University, where theatergoers must provide their own seats. “It will be a bring-your-own chair-situation,” he said.
The virus has forced GRSF to limit its scope somewhat for the 17th season, reducing cast and crew numbers from 110 to 86 and the number of productions from four to three. An originally planned staging of “The Taming of the Shrew” called for a great deal of singing, dancing and kissing, which posed safety issues from the standpoint of the actor’s union, so it was cancelled, Young said. An expected reduction in revenue due to smaller audiences also prompted the show to be cut, he said.
Instead, GRSF will put on “The Tempest,” a rendition of Great Expectations based on the Charles Dickens novel, and a new play from the United Kingdom, “Every Brilliant Thing.” There also will be a portion of “Romeo and Juliet” performed before each feature show.
“We find that we have to continue to be resilient, and play the cards we’re dealt,” Young said. “And that changes everyday. I come into the office and I think, ‘What’s going to be different? What am I going to have to redo or rethink today?”
Minnesota Beethoven Festival plans to hold its concert season in-person from June 27-July 18, and Leighton Broadcasting’s Winona Craft Beer Tour is scheduled for June 26.
Boats and Bluegrass will continue its tradition of putting on a concert festival at Prairie Island Campground the weekend of Sept. 23-25. Festival co-founder Isaac Sammis said the entertainment industry was one of the first hit by COVID, and will be one of the last to recover. Because the situation is so fluid, organizers will determine the specific COVID protocols for the festival about two months prior, he said.
“I think it comes down to just being able to make sure everyone can get what they need to get through this first year, until we can get back to a normal cycle and flow, and be able to go back to business as usual, or something close to it,” Sammis said.
Sammis said the festival wasn’t like major companies with large cash reserves on hand to deal with crises like the pandemic. Boats and Bluegrass has to instead rely on the community bonds in the music scene. In that spirit, this year’s festival will have the atmosphere of a family reunion, Sammis said. “Let’s get the gang back together,” he said.