Last week the leadership of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber and Annual National Shrimp Festival Committee consulted with local health care officials, the tourism bureau, volunteers and business partners to decide the fate of the 49th Annual National Shrimp Festival. Ultimately the decision was made to cancel the festival for the second year in a row. The decision was made public Sept. 9.
Several factors influenced the final decision to cancel the Shrimp Festival. One main factor is the risk of taxing local hospitals.
“South Baldwin Medical Center is at or near capacity with COVID-19 cases and the ICU is full,” said Steve Jones, vice president of special events and community relations at Coastal Alabama Business Chamber. “It cannot be known but should be expected that following the busy Labor Day holiday that more residents will be infected with the virus and may require hospitalization. If cases rise and the festival draws closer it only stands to reason that spike would have our local health care providers stressed to the limit.”
Jones went on to say that everyday residents suffer medical emergencies and their access to medical treatment was considered as well as the impact of the northern Snowbird visitors.
The Shrimp Festival is staffed entirely by volunteers and each year, over 700 members of the local community work four-hour shifts to make the Shrimp Festival happen. Many of the volunteers work more than one shift or multiple days. The Shrimp Festival Committee has 85 members who work year-round planning the event and they also work all four days of the festival, some more than 12 hours each day.
As the festival drew closer, volunteers were canceling their shifts citing COVID-19 concerns. The concessions committee reduced the number of locations, reduced hours and cut over 100 shifts to reduce the number of volunteers needed. Despite the changes, they were still short 140 volunteers.
“I want people to know that a large part of the decision to cancel the festival was in support of our volunteer committee. Almost half of them have health and safety concerns about working the four-day event. It is our duty to support our community volunteers,” Jones said. “The issue is not whether to let visitors decide if they want to attend or not. It is to support those who are the backbone of running this enormous festival.”
Thanks to the record-breaking 2021 tourist season, Jones said he does not believe the cancellation will have a significant negative impact on local business. The greatest impact is on several of the contractors that work to service the festival such as electricians, sanitation companies, security companies, caterers and musicians.
Is it time to reimagine large festivals like the Shrimp Festival due to COVID-19? Jones said they have taken a step back to look at what it takes to produce an event like this and how they can improve volunteer and visitor safety. He said he is confident that the committee is resourceful and caring enough to “reimagine” the festival offerings and footprint to prepare for whatever the future holds.
When asked if the Shrimp Festival will return in 2022 Jones said, “I cannot speak for the entire organization but at this time I am very optimistic that this extra year will give our group the opportunity to examine and prepare for the best Shrimp Festival of them all. As for me, I say we will be back.”