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Our Opinion: Pandemic makes Pumpkin Festival in 2020 too risky

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As Nash UNC Health Care continues to cope with a growing number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients, Nash County — like the rest of North Carolina and the United States — is having to face the reality that the coronavirus pandemic is not going away any time soon or easily.  Public health experts predict that the contagion and its dangers will be with us at least into the fall and likely for the rest of 2020.

No one knows for certain in July, of course, how safe our world will be in October and beyond. Everyone hopes for the best, but the current trends are not promising. Nash County commissioners last week passed a resolution urging county residents to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, but there is widespread uncertainty over how to reopen the economy even as COVID-19 cases surge unabated.

As we all know but hate to admit, social distancing guidelines prohibit large group gatherings, indoors or outdoors, where people are crowded together. And just as Nashville had to cancel the Blooming Festival in May, the Spring Hope Area Chamber of Commerce now has to decide what to do about the Spring Hope National Pumpkin Festival.

The Pumpkin Festival is a cherished Spring Hope institution. The first weekend in October has been a source of community pride, fun, and profit for almost 50 years, bringing thousands of people into town. The festival has become an important part of our town’s identity, worth fighting to preserve in normal times.

But times are not normal right now, and the harsh reality is that planning and preparing for a October festival has to be fully underway months earlier. Work on this year’s festival began after the last one ended, and the intensive preparations usually ramp up about now. And this year, the chamber is facing the likelihood that the guest of dishonor at the 2020 Pumpkin Festival will be COVID-19.

If that’s the case, holding our favorite festival raises several unpleasant — and unacceptable — possibilities. 

One is that the festival fails because people do what they’re supposed to do and stay sheltered at home, avoiding the normally crammed downtown. It’s painful, and expensive, to spend hours of work and thousands of dollars for only a pitiful crowd. 

The other possibility is even worse: the crowds still come, still party, scores get sick with COVID-19 and many people die. That’s the possibility that has prompted neighboring festival organizers to prudently reduce, reschedule or cancel their events. 

So let’s save the heartburn of uncertainty and adapt now to the pandemic. Let’s not continue planning something we know we’re likely to cancel or regret, but don’t just cancel the Pumpkin Festival, then let it die. Let’s “postpone” the festival until 2021 with a firm public commitment to resume it. 

Perhaps some parts of the festival — the recipe or decorating contest, local entertainment, selection of a pumpkin queen — could be adapted to a virtual presentation, as a placeholder consolation. The chamber might also use the extra months — and perhaps extra dollars saved from this year — to expand the already reliable format. With most if not all of the other festivals shut down, there’s no competitive disadvantage to pausing and reinventing.

The Pumpkin Festival is too important to Spring Hope to let it become a fatal victim of COVID-19. But let’s turn the pandemic interruption into just a breather until another year.

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