Cancel or carry on? Milwaukee festival, event planners face tough decision

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The State Fair is on, Summerfest is delayed, but Brady Street Fest and Strawberry Fest have decided to cancel. 

As we try to go back to a pre-COVID normal, organizers say they have nearly impossible decisions to make about their events, big and small. 

Mike Wos and the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin will host a charity fundraiser on May 8 at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, but he says that decision is being second-guessed.

“It seems like we're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't a lot of times because this has been such a polarizing issue for people,” Wos said.

Wos says the issue is COVID-19 safety and the politics surrounding the pandemic. People have opinions on masks, social distancing and vaccines. Some people are eager to move on from quarantine, others are just not ready.

“Good friends, supporters praise us for having the event-- and just as many people do the opposite,” he said.  

While the CDC recommends that people avoid large, indoor gatherings, the city of Milwaukee does allow events with restrictions, which Wos says he will follow to the letter, and “that means wearing masks all the time.” The rules also dictate that the Fired Up Fundraiser and Charity Ball will be about half the size of the event in 2019 (the 2020 event was cancelled because of the pandemic). 

Jim Linneman and the Locust Street Festival committee went in a different direction, they decided to cancel. Linneman calls the decision “heartbreaking,” but thought June was too soon to hold a crowded festival, even one that takes place predominantly outside.

“The six blocks sometimes gets very crowded, and we could not guarantee or control social distancing,” he said.

While Linneman says that some people voiced disappointment over the cancellation, it was nothing like the backlash in Cedarburg over Strawberry Fest. BJ Homayouni, the executive director for the Festivals of Cedarburg said anger led to online threats, and some business owners are considering hosting a rogue festival in place of Strawberry Fest.

While some events and summer festivals hold a special place in the hearts of Wisconsinites, Linneman says losing them also hits hard in their wallets.

“Everybody down the street on Locust has their busiest day of the year during the festival,” he said.

Mike Wos says canceling his event for two straight years could send regular donors to other charities, and could cost burn survivors the long-term support they need

"This event specifically has generated more than $100,000 for us for Burn Camp and other programming,” he said.

Money isn’t the only consideration, logistics are also getting in the way of hosting events. Linneman says vendors for Locust Street Fest were hesitant to commit, and the Fired Up Fundraiser is still dealing with a staffing issue, just days before the event.

“There’s a lack of availability of service workers right now and that’s impacting us,” Wos said. “They don’t have enough staff to actually allow us to have table service right now.” 

Nikki Panico, executive director for Susan G. Komen in Wisconsin, will have to make a decision soon on the More than Pink Walk this fall.

“We know when we bring people together we will automatically raise more dollars, and not having the walk last year our revenue is down 65%,” Panico said. 

But Panico also says if the increased revenue comes at the cost of safety, it’s not worth it.

“Safety and health is our number one priority,” she said. 

All four event planners say this is the fine line they have to walk. All are eager to get back to normal, but also not willing to risk the safety of their customers or supporters. All four said their decision to cancel or move forward is not a political statement about COVID-19, but a tough decision based on the information they have.

“My heart breaks for the nonprofits and the organizations that are having to make this decision,” Panico said.

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