For the second consecutive year, the annual N.C. Potato Festival will not be held in May because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Executive Director Deborah Malenfant said festival organizers decided Monday not to hold the popular downtown event May 14-17 because of the uncertainty of COVID-19 mass gathering restrictions.
Organizers would like to host the Potato Festival, or possibly a similar event, in the fall but Malenfant said COVID-related obstacles may prevent that from happening. The festival normally draws around 30,000 to Elizabeth City’s downtown.
Last year’s Potato Festival was postponed when officials from Elizabeth City and Pasquotank and Camden counties declared temporary states of emergency because of COVID-19 last March. Potato Festival organizers said later that they hoped to hold the event in October. However, those plans were dashed by the pandemic as well.
Outdoor mass gatherings in North Carolina are restricted to a maximum of 50 people until at least to the end of February. Because of that, Malenfant said there are too many unknowns to move forward with a large festival in May.
“We will definitely not be having a May Potato Festival,” Malenfant said. “We start planning for that in January and we had to make a call. We don’t have enough information on what we will be able to do.’’
Festival organizers will now look at hosting a fall event, which could be scaled down depending on what COVID mass gathering restrictions are in place at the time.
“I’m hesitant to say to it will be the ‘Potato Festival,’ Malenfant said. “When you start changing dates on a major festival like that then it gets out of sync. We are looking at the fall to do some type of festival. Whether it is the full-on Potato Festival or some variation of a fall festival, we don’t know yet.”
But even a scaled-down fall event could present obstacles that may be difficult to overcome. Malenfant said it would take a very large number of volunteers to make such a festival safe unless health conditions return to “near-normal.”
“It’s a possibility that we could scale down the festival,” Malenfant said. “But it would be a big footprint to manage” when it comes to making sure cleaning standards are maintained and social distancing and mask-wearing requirements are monitored and enforced.
“With an event that size, there are thousands and thousands of touch points that would be difficult to clean and sanitize on a continual basis,’’ she said.