When AthFest Educates Executive Director Jill Helme and the nonprofit’s board of directors decided to put off the June music and arts festival, Clarke County’s COVID-19 numbers were still sky-high, but vaccines offered hope for a normal late summer and fall.
Ironically, by the time June rolled around, Clarke County was seeing just a couple of COVID cases per day. By then, the decision had been made to hold AthFest Sept. 24–26. As cases of the new Delta variant crept up through July and spiked in August, though, local hospitals started to overflow with COVID patients, and it became clear that AthFest would not meet the Athens-Clarke County government’s health and safety criteria. ACC officials decided on Sept. 9 not to issue a final permit for the event.
“It’s hard to make the decision when the numbers are low, and then cross your fingers hoping the numbers stay low,” Helme said.
The announcement came as no surprise to AthFest’s organizers, who’d been monitoring the statistics, but it was a blow to the music scene nonetheless.
“The lineup this year represents the best of Athens’ past, present and future. We were excited to share this diverse lineup and celebrate with our city,” said Drew Beskin, who formerly managed the Georgia Theatre and serves on AthFest’s booking committee. “We weren’t able to have our club crawl out of COVID concerns, but we moved forward with planning the outside portion hoping we would be permitted to have the festival. We had over 50 artists booked. After a year-plus of no shows for most of these acts, having to take this away from them was the most devastating part of this ordeal.”
Festivals Claimed by COVID
ACC officials set a policy in April for how to proceed with permits for special events that require the use of public spaces like streets or parks. (Activities like protests that are covered by the First Amendment are exempt, and so are activities on private property or at UGA, because as state property, local laws don’t apply on campus.) For an event like AthFest, a final permit is issued 7–14 days before the event if COVID cases are below 300 per 100,000 people over a 14-day period. On Sept. 9, Clarke County exceeded that threshold by three times.
A permit was issued for the Twilight Criterium on Aug. 20. But the pandemic was growing worse by then after the summer lull. The Race to Beat Cancer on Aug. 28 went virtual, and an application for the 5K for Kappie on Sept. 12 was withdrawn. Three events scheduled for Oct. 23 and 24—the Athens to Atlanta 10K Rollerblade, Athens Pagan Pride Day and Athens to Atlanta Road Skate—were canceled by the organizers due to COVID concerns, according to records provided by Andrew Saunders, director of the ACC Central Services Department. In addition, LatinxFest, scheduled for Oct. 9 has been postponed indefinitely, and the Northeast Georgia Folk Fest on the same day was canceled. This fall’s Wildwood Revival festival, held on a farm in Oglethorpe County, was canceled as well. And the Boulevard costumed-dog parade Boo-le-Bark, scheduled for Oct. 10, is making alternative plans for a smaller event at Jittery Joe’s Roasting Co.
Even though these events are held outdoors, and outside gatherings are considerably safer than indoor ones, other factors are involved, said Mark Ebell, a family physician and professor of epidemiology at UGA.
“It also depends on distancing, which is easier at an outdoor market, but not if people are crowded around a stage,” Ebell said. “It also depends on how long people are together—a longer period, especially in a crowded setting, is going to be less safe—and what they’re doing. If they’re singing and shouting, like at a concert or football game, I’d be more concerned about transmission via droplets and aerosols.”
Helme said that AthFest looked at moving to a site on private property, but “when you look at the locations we have, you start weeding things out pretty quickly.” No local site could meet AthFest’s parking and electrical needs, and the nonprofit also could not afford to pay thousands of dollars in rent, she said.
Likewise, requiring attendees to be vaccinated, as many local venues and major festivals like Lollapalooza have done, simply wasn’t feasible, Helme said. Its location on Washington and Hull streets downtown means that it’s nearly impossible to control who enters and where. ACC law prohibits events held on city streets to charge admission. Even without tickets, restricting entry would have required fencing off the festival area and hiring additional security that, again, it could not afford.
A Blow to Business
Fencing also would have prevented concert-goers from enjoying the music on a bar or restaurant patio or otherwise patronizing downtown businesses. “You wouldn’t want to restrict access that way,” Helme said.
Although the emphasis has shifted to raising money for local music and arts education, the original purpose of AthFest when it was founded in 1997 was to give downtown a boost in the lean summer months when students are gone, and it still fulfills that function. According to the Georgia Council for the Arts, AthFest had a $370,000 economic impact in 2018.
“AthFest in the summer was always a necessary injection of business to downtown venues and restaurants/bars,” Beskin said. “With students in town, one could only imagine how much fun a late September AthFest would have been.”
It’s hard to quantify the precise economic impact of festivals on downtown businesses, said David Lynn, co-director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, but one measure is parking revenue, and turnover is always significant on those days. Events like LatinxFest also draw diverse crowds from demographics that might not ordinarily go downtown, Lynn said.
“When we lose those, it’s a hit, and it’s a hit to the community,” he said. “We like to have a visibility that’s not just football-related or student-related.” But he also added that risking the health of attendees isn’t worth it.
Artists, too, lost an opportunity to promote themselves in front of an audience of thousands at the local music scene’s biggest event of the year. “Luckily, having multiple revenues coming through music, like my graphic design commissions and engineering, make things like festival cancellations a little less painful, but it still hurts when your ultimate goal is getting a constant stream of revenue coming in from shows,” said hip-hop artist Kxng Blanco. “I guess that’s why it’s best to have multiple shows.”
What Comes Next
When AthFest was canceled, other venues filled the breach by scheduling their own mini-festivals or club crawl-style events, which could help recoup some revenue. They reached out to AthFest, Helme said, and she gave them their blessing. “Thankfully, a lot of venues around town have decided to put on their own events that weekend,” she said.
Troy Aubrey, a booker for both AthFest and Southern Brewing Co., quickly started to organize a concert on SBC’s lawn when he heard the news. “We are currently working on the lineups over there,” he told Flagpole last week. “I know that there are a few other folks also putting outdoor shows together as well. Hopefully, some of the displaced AthFest acts will find a home soon so they still get to play somewhere that weekend.”
In the long run, of course, no one knows how long the pandemic will last, whether a new variant will spark another surge, or whether COVID settles into becoming another endemic seasonal illness like the flu. For now, it looks like the Delta surge is starting to subside. As Ebell noted, cases have been slowly declining since Sept. 1, although Clarke County’s caseload was still nearly four times what the CDC defines as “high transmission”—100 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. “My best-case estimate is that it will be four weeks or more before we are no longer in that ‘high transmission’ category,” he said.
For most of this surge, the majority of COVID-19 cases locally have been among UGA students. However, as Ebell noted, positive tests among asymptomatic students dropped from 6% in early August to 4.4% in early September to 2.9% in mid-September. “So it does appear to be declining, but we still have a ways to go,” Ebell said.
As for AthFest, the organization will survive despite losing its marquee event—and tens of thousands of dollars—two years in a row. “Fortunately, we have been able to weather that because of good financial planning for the past decade,” Helme said.
ACC’s pandemic rules for permitting races are different than for concerts, and Helme said she is confident that the AthHalf half-marathon and 5K will proceed as planned on Oct. 23–24, with precautions like a mask requirement at the start- and finish-line areas, staggered starts for runners and socially distanced water stations. Those who wish to help AthFest Educates financially can sign up for AthHalf as a volunteer or a runner, or make a donation at athfesteducates.org, she said.
While the plan continues to be to return AthFest to its traditional June dates, the fate of next year’s festival is still up in the air. “We have not made any decisions on how to move forward in 2022,” Helme said.
Editorial coordinator Sam Lipkin contributed to this report.
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