While the race to vaccinate the world against COVID-19 continues and the number of American coronavirus cases drops— with many states still recording increased infections, including variants — the committee annually organizing Big River Chautauqua in Bonne Terre has joined other local event planners in making a hard decision: Cancel or proceed?
Chautauqua committee member Paul Williams said its 18 members came to a unanimous decision: to wit, better safe than sorry.
Williams said it’s not that the committee wants to cancel the cultural and historic event, which would have marked its 27th year in July if the pandemic hadn’t happened.
When the event was cancelled last year, organizers and the scholars who impersonate the featured historical figures — carefully chosen according to theme — were optimistic the 2020 event would simply be postponed until July 15-17 this year. The theme and characters were going to be “American Icons,” featuring civil rights leader Rosa Parks, aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and slain presidential candidate and brother to a president, Robert F. Kennedy.
Williams said while two of the scholars were game to follow through when he checked in with them three weeks ago, the third scholar expressed concern about the safety of traveling by plane and the close-seated nature of the performances.
The committee was aware that some of the aspects that make Chautauqua special — concessions and intimate seating for crowds of 250 people, three nights in a row — might have made it become a super-spreader event, Williams said.
“Making it sufficiently socially-distanced under the tent would have meant only about 70 people being able to find seating around the stage, so where would the other 180-or-so people be, milling about and standing close together outside the seated area,” Williams said. “And we normally have food, which might have required a lot of additional instructions to make sure it conformed to health department specifications.
“We (the committee members) had a good discussion, and we just decided it’s not worth the risk of something like that. We’re hopeful in 2022 we can do it again.”
Williams said since many Chautauqua fans incorporate it into their vacations, the committee also thought it wise to make the decision sooner rather than later. Plus, he said, the committee was wary of scrutiny on social media.
“The last thing we want to do is throw caution to the wind and have it, and have a hundred people say on Facebook, why did they have it when the pandemic is still happening, look at all the people not wearing masks. We want to protect the reputation of Chautauqua,” he said.
Williams noted that Country Days in Farmington was recently announced, and he’s glad the Farmington Chamber of Commerce is proceeding with its plans.
“Country Days is kind of a different event, it’s all outside and the organizers and people who attend it will have more options to make it as safe an event as they want,” he said. “They’re completely outside and have the ability to spread out, for one thing. We don’t have the same characteristics with Chautauqua, so this seemed to be the responsible decision for us.”
Letters have been sent out to faithful sponsors, Williams said, and the feedback he’s gotten is, they largely understand.
“We’re in unusual circumstances, but everyone’s dealt with the pandemic for a year now, so it probably wasn’t a complete surprise,” he said. “We have a ways to go before we’re all OK.”
Looking ahead to 2022, with plans traditionally starting in October, Williams said he has no idea what the theme might be, but is sure eventually, some Chautauqua somewhere will have a theme of “COVID-19,” given the historic nature of the worldwide epidemic.
He emphasized that Chautauqua might be down this year, but it’s not out in the future.
“Be sure to assure readers, we’re not bowing out or giving up, or folding the tent, so to speak,” he said. “We’re just putting it off another year while more progress is made with the pandemic, and we're looking forward to bringing it back July 14-16, 2022.”
Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at email@example.com.