Blueberry Fest cancelled

“Biggest weekend of the year” scrapped because of coronavirus scare

by Tom Coombe
Ely’s biggest summer event - the Blueberry/Art Festival - won’t take place this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Ely Chamber of Commerce pulled the plug on Good Friday and notified members with a late-afternoon email message that sent shockwaves through town and served as a devastating economic blow to a business community already reeling from a month-long, pandemic-related shutdown and statewide stay-at-home orders.
As many as 40,000 people usually pass through Whiteside Park during the three-day festival and the Ely area swells with visitors from around the state and beyond.
“I believe a lot of us could say it was the hardest business decision we’ve ever made,” said Brian Forsberg, who chairs the Chamber’s board of directors. “I think I can speak for the board on that. We all take the economic impact very seriously.”
The 40th annual festival was set for July 24-26, but Forsberg cited public health risks as tantamount in three days of talks by Chamber leaders - which led to a unanimous board vote to cancel. Joining Forsberg on the board are Dave Sebesta, Dafne Caruso, Ryan Olson, Jodi Martin and Chuck Zeugner.
“The biggest thing I took away was how I felt socially responsible,” said Forsberg. “You have tens of thousands of people coming into a contained venue. There’s just no way to make that event to allow for any social distancing.”
Forsberg said that the Chamber gathered input from an array of agencies and other resources, including organizers of other events, and said “this (coronavirus) still seems to be a real threat,” particularly given the setup of the festival, with roughly 300 vendors, thousands of patrons in the park at any one time and a clientele that mixes Ely area residents with visitors from across the country.
“One of the reasons the event is successful is by people coming in from out of town,” said Forsberg. “You’re bringing people shoulder to shoulder and putting a lot of people in one space... One thing we thought of is what if after the festival our residents start to get sick, and how overwhelming that could be to our hospital.”
The announcement was met with mixed reaction from the general public, vendors and Ely’s business community. For many Ely businesses “Blueberry weekend” provides the largest revenue stream of the year and the cancellation may lead to a crushing financial hit.
Board member Dave Sebesta, the husband of Chamber director Eva Sebesta, acknowledged the unrest and defended the decision to cancel “the single most important event the Chamber does” in a Facebook post over the weekend.
“To suggest that this decision was in any way willy-nilly is, in fact, “asinine,” said Sebesta. “Generally stating, the Chamber’s mission is the health and well being of our business community. During these unprecedented times, that can be shortened to simply community.“
He continued: “I have witnessed since a week ago, Sunday, the loss of both my step father and his companion to this virus. Many others have felt this heartache. To think that I, as a Chamber board member, should be comfortable having tens of thousands of visitors from across the Midwest and beyond, including many ‘hot spots’ congregated in Whiteside Park over a three-day weekend in July would be totally irresponsible. One can only imagine the impact an outbreak would be to our aging local population and our limited resources. We may not know all the solutions but we sure the hell know the risks.”
Also at issue was the timing of the announcement, which came more than three months in advance.
In a news release outlining the cancellation, Chamber officials have noted that numerous other events have been cancelled regionally and across Minnesota - some through August. In northeastern Minnesota, Babbitt’s Peter Mitchell Days and Virginia’s Land of the Loon Festival, both set for June, are among the events that have been scrapped.
Forsberg said the decision will give more businesses time to prepare.
“If we cancelled a couple weeks ahead of time or even a month ahead of time, all these decisions are jarring,” said Forsberg. “Tourism does support a lot in the summer, but doing this now gives somes businesses time to plan. I really think of those merchants and restaurants in town. And if the resorts had gotten cancellations a couple weeks ahead of time, that’s hard. This gives more time.”
While the Blueberry/Art Festival is cancelled and the Chamber has scrapped all of its events through August - including the weekly Tuesday Night Live promotion as well as it summer concert series at Whiteside Park - Forsberg said the Chamber is not closing the door to summer visitor traffic.
“That’s one point I want to get across,” said Forsberg. “The message I want to get out is when it’s safe to travel, Ely is ready to welcome visitors, I think in a socially responsible way. My take is I think Ely is uniquely positioned for natural social distancing. I can’t make the call but I think there are a lot of events in Ely that can allow for distancing and wouldn’t have the potential for impact on the community as the Blueberry.”
Chamber officials have had some discussions with vendors and are gauging interest in a “virtual” festival that would allow them to sell their products online.
And while Blueberry weekend is cancelled, Chamber officials are proceeding with plans for the Harvest Moon Festival, slated for Sept. 11-13.
Blueberry/Art vendors have been given the option to lease space in the park for Harvest Moon and some are taking the Chamber up on that offer, according to Forsberg. It’s possible Harvest Moon, which usually has about 125 vendors, will be bigger in scale this year.
“One thing we talked about is making the Harvest Moon bigger and better,” said Forsberg. “It would be our hope, if things are better, to have the Harvest Moon and we would love to have the boost to our economy at that time.”
As of Wednesday, 87 Minnesotans had died as a result of the coronavirus, with 65 of the 87 deaths reported in congregate care facilities. Reports of confirmed cases and hospitalizations have also lagged far behind initial models used to support the stay at home order and other restrictions.
The stay at home order expires in early-May and Gov. Tim Walz is facing increased pressure to lift restrictions, but Forsberg said it’s doubtful that the Chamber would reconsider its plans to cancel the Blueberry/Art Festival.
“There are times things can be put back together, but could this be put together that quickly,” said Forsberg. “We’re a small Chamber, and a lot happens in that little cabin down there. It would be great to have more resources.”