It is impossible to talk about community events in 2020 without also talking about COVID-19.
Call up an organizer or a tourism director to chat about their plans for this festival or that parade, and some of the first things out of their mouth will be about the precautions they're taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; temperature checks, social distancing, etc. And virtually all will talk about a plan they developed with the help of the Lake Cumberland District Health Department (LCDHD) in order to meet CDC and state guidelines.
But much as washing one's hands has been recommended to help control COVID-19, LCDHD is washing their hands of any role in approving large-scale community events.
In a public information brief released Wednesday, the LCDHD — which covers 10 counties throughout the lake region — stated the following:
"Over the last several weeks many area groups have asked us to review their plans for 'community events' such as festivals, parades, firework shows, holiday events etc. Without fail, these groups share with us plans that align with the Governor’s guidance. Almost equally without fail these events fail to unfold as planned and consistent social distancing and masking does not take place. Therefore, the health department will no longer review these types of event plans. It will be the health department’s standing policy that we advise against any such social gathering. While we do not have the authority to prevent these types of events, we can no longer spend our time reviewing plans that consistently fail during execution. We will simply direct such “event planners” to the state’s guidance. Of course, we will continue to work with businesses, long-term care facilities, schools etc. to put together prevention and post-exposure COVID-19 plans."
Of course, while the health department's description of "festivals, parades, firework shows, holiday events" is vague, most people can point immediately to what they're talking about: Somerset's Moonlight Festival. Burnside's Thunder Over the Island. Somernites Cruise. The Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade. All have been either held or announced in recent months. And for those who have already staged such events, they tend to feel they have done so successfully, despite the LCDHD's comments — and thanks in part to the LCDHD's help.
"I didn't have the impression that they felt that way (when planning Thunder Over the Island, held in September)," said Frank Crabtree, Jr., Burnside Tourism Director. "(LCDHD) was very good to work with. They helped us come up with a plan, and it was very successful. There were no cases (of COVID-19 traced back to the event), the community was very responsible and adhered to all of our guidelines. They were happy to be out there and return to some sense of normalcy."
Burnside controlled how people came into the downtown Cole Park area, and cleared out trees and other clutter to allow for maximum capacity, so groups of people could spread out and keep distance. When moving around, they were asked to wear masks. The City of Somerset went even further with their Moonlight Festival in early October, going through elaborate temperature checks at the door, gathering information for contract tracing, and on then placing bracelets on people giving them permission to be inside a perimeter set up around several city blocks. They reduced overall capacity by half, from 10,000 people to 5,000. And of course, unless you were keeping a distance from others or eating — which was a big part of the event, food, much as with Burnside and other festivities like Walker Weekend and various local dinners and indoor functions — you were asked to wear a mask.
"We wanted to make sure we were in compliance with what was best and took safety measures serious. We felt strongly that if we worked with LCDHD and were able to execute the plan, we felt safe about having (the event)," said Leslie Ikerd, Somerset's Director of Tourism. "(LCDHD) have us the green light. We took a lot of precautions — the time it takes us to set up was twice as long, but that was expected. We had a list of symptoms to check for at the gate. We had a bracelet check, regardless of your age. The vendors didn't let people into the drinks. ... We bought 500 extra yards of rebar to encase the entire area (to keep people from getting in without going through a checkpoint). If I see you without a band on, I'd send you back to the gate to get your temperature checked."
Ikerd is quick to point out that there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 from the event — the LCDHD told them to hold on to the contact tracing info for 30 days, and if there were no related outbreaks after then, it was likely safe. Neither has there been any cases from downtown Somerset events like Somernites Cruise, held monthly since July, or the SomerSplash Water Park, which saw over 40,000 visitors in 2020, she noted.
"The common denominators is that those our outdoors events. Indoor events have to be more stringent," said Ikerd. Even so, she observed, this week's "Whiskey & War Stories" at The Center for Rural Development took all the precautions they could — temperature checks, four people at a table instead of eight, and of course, masks when not distanced or eating. "I didn't see anyone breaking (these rules)."
Or take the Somerset High School Homecoming Parade, scheduled for today, October 30. Usually students build floats in the school's garage; this year, SPEDA (Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority) gave use of the old Palm Beach plant to the school so students could have more space to spread out and work on floats — Ikerd knows as she has a young person involved. When the floats roll downtown, she expects those who come out will be able to wear masks and socially distance — or, if they're concerned, stay home.
"If anyone feels uncomfortable going out, then that's what's right for them," she said. "Other people have the mental health aspect, the need to go out and be around people and be social. We can do that and meet all the safety protocols we've learned over the last few months."
Other parades face similar situations. The Commonwealth Journal wasn't able to speak to Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bobby Clue for the article, but in speaking about the Christmas Parade scheduled for December 5, Clue expected that social distancing would be readily available along the parade route of almost a mile-and-a-half.
“I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t have a Christmas Parade,” said Clue. “It’s outdoors. People can self-isolate or socially distance along the route as much as any other. ... I feel that this is a very safe and responsible activity. I think the CDC’s biggest concern with with gatherings that are indoors. Quite frankly, we’d be doing a lot of disservice to the children in the community if we didn’t host it.”
Or take the annual Halloween Costume Parade at Science Hill School today, October 30. Kellie Wilson, Dean of Students at Science Hill School, said the parade will go ahead at 2 p.m. at the school along North U.S. 27, even though all students will have a Virtual learning Day from home. Starting at 1 p.m. parents can drop their child off at the school and after a temperature check, the student will join their teacher on the grass field on the south end of the property. Parents can park and watch the parade at 2 p.m. from their cars or the sidewalks, masks requested if out of car. The tradition of judging the costumes was cancelled because parents are often involved and that would mean too many visitors in the school.
Both Frank Crabtree and Ikerd expressed sympathy for the LCDHD in their efforts to contain the virus.
"Sometimes (organizations like LCDHD) may make comments that are covering their own liability," said Frank Crabtree, who said he needed to process the health department's latest reaction and present it to his board to consider how to move forward with future events. "... I don't know what kind of pressures the health department is under. From our perspective, we did everything we could to adhere to guidelines, we went above and beyond, but I can't imagine being under the type of pressure they are as a health department under a pandemic."
"I understand they're doing the best they can with the information they've been given at the time, but we're all doing that," said Ikerd. "They're doing the best they can, but it's up to each of us to evaluate whether or not we can do something in a safe manner. If you can't, fine, don't do it, but if you can, go ahead. It has to be by a case-to-case basis. ... We can't stop living altogether because of the times we're in. We will continue to be responsible and do things the right way to protect the community."
LCDHD Executive Director Shawn Crabtree further explained the health department's decision, saying, "As far as planning, organizers did a good job in their plans. Their promotional materials were all well planned and informative. You've got to rely on the public to follow through."
Where the breakdowns happened were with event attendees themselves. Despite requests to remain masked, once inside the event members of the public often did not keep masks on and did not practice social distancing, he said.
While the event organizers pointed out that there were no known outbreaks of the coronavirus tied to their events, Shawn Crabtree explained that it doesn't mean there weren't any cases of COVID-19 to come out of recent public events. It simply means that the virus is so widespread within the community — and the health department is spread so thin in terms of manpower — that it hasn't been able to directly connect a case to a public event.
Shawn Crabtree didn't specifically focus on Pulaski's events. The health department covers a 10-county area in the Lake Cumberland region, of which Pulaski is a small portion.
But the health department director did explain that all outdoor events like the ones held recently in Pulaski have a flaw when it comes to looking at who an individual comes into contact. Events that large are attended by many who don't know one another. One person can enter the personal space of hundreds of others. Even at events like the Moonlight Festival where names and contact information were collected, it is still impossible to know exactly who was in contact with whom.
That makes these festivals and other public events different from previously known outbreaks, such as tent revivals or church functions. At those events, people can pinpoint where they sat, who they sat next to, who they came in contact with.
That makes it easier to track down cases, Crabtree said.
But at a sizable event where everyone is mingling, there's no way to track down contacts. That makes it impossible for the health department to say if there have been any outbreaks.
"We know, without a shadow of a doubt, social distancing and masking works," Shawn Crabtree said. They have seen instances where, when guidelines are followed at a business or an enclosed space like a nursing home, if someone tests positive and guidelines have been followed, then cases are kept to that individual or a very close contact.
But the health department keeps getting calls after public events from people complaining that masks were not in use, or are directed to photos posted on social media that shows guidelines not being followed.
Crabtree said the health department will continue to work with structured organizations like schools, nursing homes and other facilities to review event plans.