CLEARWATER — COVID-19 continues to ravage the local tourism industry this year, recently claiming two signature events in Clearwater.
The city announced Jan. 5 the annual Sea-Blues Festival had been canceled until at least 2022, and just two days later, the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival met the same fate.
The Tampa Bay region has grappled in recent weeks with the surge of COVID-19 cases — a reflection of the national upward trajectory of the virus. More than 2,000 cases and eight deaths were reported in the area Jan. 10; seven of those deaths were reported in Pinellas County.
Kris Koch, senior events manager for the city of Clearwater, said a variety of factors went into the decisions to cancel the festivals, although coronavirus did play a significant role.
“The fact that these things take several months to plan in advance, we had to make the decision now,” Koch said, adding that postponing an event such as the Sugar Sand Festival wouldn’t be practical or safe for local marine life. “We had to look at the sea turtle rules, too. Beginning May 1, no activities such like this can take place in the sand.”
Pier 60 owner and Sugar Sand founder Lisa Chandler said the decision was a hard one, but in today’s climate, it was the right one.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty out there right now,” she said. “It (the festival) has been like my fifth child. Things are really beyond our control right now.”
Chandler said the sheer number of components involved in the organization of the festival — including bringing in artisans and master sculptors from all across the globe; the coordination of 1,200 volunteers, many of whom are 50 or older; and overseeing more than 1,000 students who visit the site each year — would make holding it during a pandemic simply impossible.
“People expect a quality event every year,” she said. “Our plan is to come back bigger and stronger in 2022.”
While COVID-19 is always a concern for festival organizers, ongoing construction in Coachman Park was one major reason the Sea-Blues Festival was canceled, Koch said.
“Coachman Park isn’t open for events,” he said.
Koch said the city will take events on a case-by-case basis, with health and safety the utmost priorities.
“Ultimately, it will depend on how sure we are a health and safety plan can be created and followed,” Koch said.