By Jessica Green
Beginning in 2009, the Athens, Georgia, community had gathered for AthFest, a free multi-day outdoor music and arts festival featuring local bands. But in 2020, organizers cancelled the beloved event due to the global pandemic.
They had planned to come back in September, but county ordinances and rising COVID-19 case numbers halted the event for a second year in a row.
“I think everybody was disappointed, especially the people who had already invested many hours into (the) festival, getting contracts in place and booking bands and all of that,” said Rachel Allen, an AthFest media representative. “But a lot of people were also saying, ‘thank you’ for making the right decision for our community. Even though this is sad, it’s understandable.”
This year’s festival would have looked a little different than in years past. AthFest organizers planned to host the event at a different time of year and leave out indoor events like the Club Crawl. Allen said as far as major adaptations or backup plans, this event was all or nothing.
“It costs money. And the mission of the organization is to give donations to local educators for music and arts education,” Allen said. “So, we can’t threaten the mission of the nonprofit for the sake of planning a festival that loses money.”
Other annual events in the college town were cancelled as well. University Union, a student activities organization at the University of Georgia, had events planned well into the fall 2020 semester when classes went virtual March 2020.
“UGA literally announced that we were online for the rest of the semester right before we were about to announce the spring concert,” said Arsema Worku, vice president of internal affairs at University Union. “All of that got cancelled and then obviously last year with the pandemic, nobody thought it was safe enough to just cram a bunch of students in.”
Worku, also an economics and risk management & insurance major, said the student-led club did what they could to continue traditional events in the virtual environment. One event was Taste of Athens, which features food vendors from the area so that students may try the local cuisine. Worku said she and other University Union event coordinators deemed it unsafe to host the event as they typically would.
“We had to pivot and instead we got a local Athens chef. He did a live demo teaching everyone how to make spaghetti,” said Worku. “It was still a decently successful event. Nothing like it would have been in-person but I’m so glad we were able to put on that event and keep that legacy of [Taste of Athens] going.”
Grace Gumpert, University Union’s entertainment director and finance major at UGA, said as the campus returns to normalcy, University Union event coordinators keep in place pandemic adaptations like encouraging masks, providing hand sanitizer and hosting events outdoors or in larger in-door spaces to allow for social distancing.
“Since we didn’t have in-person [events] last year, we’re kind of having to re-market our events out there and re-advertise really to a whole new generation of UGA students,” said Gumpert. “So, we have to like reprove ourselves, which is fine, but it’s definitely a different crowd.”
University Union event coordinators said when planning events this semester, they first had to gauge students’ comfort levels about attending events in-person and provide entertaining options for both.
“Last year we barely been any in-person [events]. We did have the movies in-person, socially distanced, but this year we’re pretty much like game on, all in-person. I feel like it’s like totally different from last year to this year,” Gumpert said.
Jessica Green is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.