The volume dial has been turned up slightly, but Manitobans are still entering a summer more muted than anything they’ve experienced in generations.
Annual events and festivals have fallen one after another, like a row of dominoes, silenced by restrictions on gatherings imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the list: the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Jazz Winnipeg Festival, Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Folklorama, Pride Week, the Red River Ex, Dauphin’s Countryfest, Doors Open Winnipeg, the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival, and live theatre, including Shakespeare in the Ruins and Rainbow Stage’s entire summer season.
“It’s a hugely challenging time and it has implications for the future,” said Garth Rogerson, CEO of the Red River Exhibition Association.
“We had a 20-acre park development plan set to start on May 1 and we had to postpone it. We had lots of plans throughout the summer for different events but … unfortunately I’m looking at empty asphalt out my window.”
The 10-day festival has been held annually for 70 years without interruption. Until now.
Businesses routinely go through assessments and various scenarios to be prepared for the curveballs that come their way. COVID-19 was not on the radar.
“Who would have ever thought, you know? I mean, it’s just inconceivable,” said Rogerson. “It’s a huge blow to the organization and the partners that we have in the community — the vendors, the concessionaires, the entertainers. It’s very significant.”
About 1,000 people are employed during the fair, which has a midway with rides and games, concessions, craft vendors, art displays, concerts, a petting zoo, a dog show, an antique tractor display and more spread across roughly 35 hectares at Red River Exhibition Park, on the western edge of the city.
Rogerson said the park also normally hosts several trade shows starting around this time of year. They’ve all been cancelled.
“Now we’re seeing cancellations into August. And you know, I’m worried about September as well.”
Large gatherings still prohibited
On Wednesday, the Manitoba government announced some non-essential health care and retail businesses can reopen as of May 4, such as retailers, restaurant patios, museums, galleries and libraries, playgrounds, golf courses and campgrounds.
However, restrictions remain. Gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people, retail hours and occupancy levels are limited, and travel from southern Manitoba into any areas north of the 53rd parallel — the entire top half of the province — is still banned for most.
The province has also said mass gatherings such as concerts, summer festivals and major sporting events will not be considered before September 2020.
As well, many businesses and attractions that are permitted to open as of May 4 are either not ready or say it’s too soon.
“It will take some time to prepare our facilities to meet the requirements set by the province,” said a statement from the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. “We look forward to announcing an opening date soon.”
That covers the park’s pavilion, the Park Café, its nature playground, the formal gardens and the zoo.
The City of Winnipeg’s recreation centres, pools, arenas and libraries will remain closed until further notice. Some other city amenities will open Monday, though, including play structures, picnic shelters, skate parks, tennis courts, basketball courts and athletic fields.
A city bylaw requiring physical distancing in public spaces remains in place, though, and activities must be non-contact. That means no teams — football, soccer or baseball — this summer. The limit on gatherings means professional sporting events like Blue Bombers football and Goldeyes baseball are also out.
While the city’s playgrounds are opening, the Winnipeg School Division said its structures remain off-limits “for the indefinite future.”
Other big events that have been scratched from the summer calendar include the Winnipeg Soca Reggae Music Festival in Old Market Square; Summer of Sound at Assiniboia Downs, billed as one of Canada’s largest electronic dance music festivals; and Super Spike, Western Canada’s biggest beach/outdoor volleyball tournament, mixed with a two-day concert series at Maple Grove Rugby Park in south Winnipeg.
“I’m in my 60s and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Colin Ferguson, president and CEO of Travel Manitoba.
“The summer is going to look different, there’s no question of that. We’ve lost some signature events and they are exceptional events, and they’re ones that Travel Manitoba proudly partners with and is proud to market.
“They’ll be back, but they’re just not going to be there this year.”
Ferguson and Winnipeg Mayor Bowman are big promoters of the city and province. But how do you do that job when so many things are off the table?
“It is going to be a challenge. These and many other festivals that happen throughout the year are our key tourist draws,” Bowman said. “It’s a dynamic that all jurisdictions certainly in North America are facing right now.
‘Resourceful’ Manitobans will find solutions
Ferguson said there will be no domestic tourism campaign created this year and nothing on an international basis “for quite some time.”
“We have to be realistic. It’s going to be a while until consumer confidence comes around on international travel and even between neighbours,” he said.
“I can’t imagine Saskatchewan wants a lot of traffic going in and out, and I think Ontario feels the same, as do we about travellers coming here.”
Despite the hardship to his industry, Ferguson fully supports the ongoing restrictions.
“It is really critical that we follow the the provincial government’s guidelines for reopening and follow the public health officials’ recommendations, because that is our pathway forward,” he said.
“They are very concerned about a second wave or a spike in COVID cases. This is not this is not a free-for-all now, and you can do whatever you want.”
So what is there for people to do? It’s something Rogerson has asked himself.
“My wife and I were talking about that. We always go on some road trips in the summertime, and go to the lake and so forth — and now what?” he said.
“That’s the huge challenge, and I think maybe we all need a little help and some guidance.”
Ferguson calls it an opportunity to look in our own backyard — to be creative, make a Manitoba bucket list, and then visit local sites and businesses that are open.
“Give back to Manitoba first, I think, is a really strong message,” he said.
Cycle and explore the city’s neighbourhoods and what they have to offer, rather than passing through, said Bowman.
“There’s always going to be the beautiful outdoors,” he said.
“I know we come out of hibernation in springtime and really look forward to those summer months. There’s still going to be other opportunities, whether it’s enjoying a drink on a patio or spending time with family and friends.”
“It’s the start of a good story in amongst a bad situation,” added Ferguson. “These are not easy times but we are a resourceful group, Manitobans.”
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