Though virtual events have been a bright spot for many throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, no Zoom meeting could simulate the experience of, say, sipping mead in the cool summer air while watching a costumed juggler perform a routine.
That’s why organizers and attendees alike are looking forward to returning to in-person events — especially outdoor activities, which are largely regarded as low-risk spaces for the spread of COVID-19 — as Maryland heads into the warmer months.
Among the events that have already announced plans to operate fully or partially in person are the Maryland Renaissance Festival, a three-month festival held in Crownsville in Anne Arundel County, and Baltimore Pride, a multiday parade and festival celebrating LGBTQ people and experiences.
Baltimore Pride is planning a largely virtual event with some in-person elements, including a fashion show, a dance party and a comedy show. The decision to stick with a mostly virtual celebration was made several months ago as the COVID-19 vaccine, at least the first dose of which has now been given to over 45% of Marylanders, was first being distributed.
Due to the amount of coordination that goes into planning a large event like Baltimore Pride, there is no possibility of the event being moved to a fully in-person format, even if vaccination rates continue to rise and cases keep declining, said Cleo Manago, chief executive administrative consultant for the Pride Center of Maryland and Baltimore Pride.
But current restrictions on the planned in-person activities, like limiting capacity and blocking out areas six feet apart for attendees to stand, could be loosened based on federal, state and local guidance in the months leading up to the late June festival.
“This is a large event, so you can’t just change at the drop of the hat,” Manago said. “The only thing that will possibly change is the number of people allowed to come into the live events will increase if there’s any relaxation of the mandates right now.”
Nationally, around two-thirds of people reported they would feel comfortable attending an outdoor sports event, according to research conducted in mid-March by the University of Maryland and The Washington Post. While less than half felt comfortable with indoor events, respondents were more likely to feel comfortable if certain precautions, like limited capacity and mask wearing, were enforced.
The Maryland Renaissance Festival first made the decision to host its 2021 festival in person all the way back in November. While tickets won’t go on sale until August this year, the festival’s president, Jules Smith Jr., is fairly confident that the festival will be able to go forward as planned.
“I truly think that outdoor venues with a high vaccine rate in the area should be fine,” he said.
To see whether it would be safe to open, Smith is keeping an eye on both the infection and vaccine rates in Anne Arundel County as well as the rates in jurisdictions as far as Pennsylvania and Delaware, as the Renn Fest tends to attract visitors from neighboring states.
Smith has plans to go to other renaissance fairs across the country to see how they are faring after shutting down for a year. First on his itinerary is a festival in Dallas, followed by one in Atlanta.
Currently, despite the general safety of outdoor gatherings, he is still planning to implement some precautions to make sure things run as smoothly as possible. The festival is considering a 50% capacity limit for the year, and is looking into technology to avoid congestion at the site’s entrance gate and food stall lines.
“Our decision last year and our decision this year are based on metrics we’re keeping a very close eye on,” Smith said. But, he continued, “a lot can happen in three months.”
Smaller events are also looking to the summer for possible returns. The Downtown Frederick Partnership, a nonprofit in Frederick’s Main Street community, is hoping for a return of its Alive at Five music events sometime this summer. Traditionally held at the Carroll Creek Outdoor Amphitheater, weekly Alive at Five concerts aimed to encourage those who worked in downtown Frederick to enjoy the area even after work hours were over.
Still, an official start date has not been decided on yet, and officials at the Downtown Frederick Partnership have officially ruled out the possibility of opening in the next two months
“We are struggling with the regulations for capacity limits, as far as whether or not the event would be efficient for us or not at the capacity that we’re at now,” Jade Dunhour, promotion and events manager for the Downtown Frederick Partnership, who is hoping to see these restrictions relaxed as early as this week.
In lieu of a full summer program, though, the organization has applied to expand Alive at Five into the fall to make up for lost time, hoping that Frederick’s residents and workers will be willing to bundle up to watch outdoor music into October.
“We’re really hoping to get it up and running this year,” Dunhour said.