The festival has spent more than $600,000 on alterations and additions to make the annual festival as safe as possible.
The Florida Strawberry Festival is here and while the homage to strawberries and the hometown feel is sure to remain, a few changes lie ahead for those who wish to attend.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had staff at the festival on the edge of their seats for months. The decision to host the annual festival was one staff did not take lightly. President Paul Davis said they created a committee solely dedicated toward monitoring the virus, staying up-to-date on the latest expert medical statements and evaluating the best steps forward for the festival.
Davis said they realized that it would be best to cancel the headline entertainment. Thousands flock to the stadium for each show as the concerts are as legendary as the festival itself, which means thousands sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the grandstands and on the floor.
“We just felt there was no way for people to sit together in that arena and be safe,” Davis said. “It wasn’t about the money, we didn’t even try to negotiate prices, we just honestly felt there was no place safely we could do it. We did a lot of looking out there and decided if we decided to do our senior shows, let’s say the Oak Ridge Boys shows. They bring around 3,000 people if we are socially distancing seats. My seniors would have to go all the way to the top of the bleachers and there’s no way our friends could do that.”
So, the shows were canceled. Davis decided to set up a smaller stage in front and then add two 30×30-foot tents with picnic tables that are socially distanced. If someone wants to come see one of the bands that have been booked to fill the festival with free entertainment, they’re welcome to as long as there is a free table. Crew members will sanitize each table as soon as a family leaves.
Masks are required at the festival as well. Those who don’t have one will be provided one at the gate. There will be signs up all over the festival reminding people to wear their masks. All volunteers, vendors and staff are required to wear masks as well.
The rides will be socially distanced and there will be a few less than prior years as well. The lines will be socially distanced and monitored so they aren’t out into the walkways. The Midway has long been a hangout spot for youth and families, but Davis said this is not the year to linger in large groups. Staff will be monitoring the area and groups will be asked to keep moving if they are seen standing around in the walkways.
The festival has also purchased more than 130 hand sanitizing stations. When paired with the hand washing stations already in place, it ensures you’ll be in eyesight of a station to sanitize and clean off after touching things anywhere you turn. There is a staff member walking around all day to check to make sure the stations are filled and the batteries are charged. Each has an individual number posted on it as well as a visible phone number to call if someone attempts to use it and finds it’s empty. If they call and report the number, a staff member will immediately come out and refill it.
The Florida Strawberry Festival is taking steps that go above and beyond to ensure all attendees are safe. Each building was recently sanitized by ECO SHIELD. The company fumigates the buildings to kill microbial diseases. The festival plans on having the company refumigate throughout the entire festival. Massive in-depth cleanings will be done every day and night at the festival.
The agriculture barn, for example, will have a crew come in each night with a truck to clean each thing by hand and then the entire building will be fogged. The festival has put together a COVID Compliance Team as well that will walk around the festival making sure things remain CDC-compliant. If there are areas that need to be tweaked, they’ll immediately notify staff. If someone is walking around and not complying with the rules, they intervene.
“We have a medical doc, a risk manager from a corporate company, an assistant manager of the festival, a representative of the Midway, a representative from the ag facility, someone from every area that will help us keep everyone in line,” Davis said. “And if they see something we need to change, we are going to change it. We take this seriously and we recognize that we have to have a fluid plan that can adapt as the festival is happening and we see new needs.”
Davis said they fully expect there to be a reduced attendance this year due to the ongoing pandemic. With the vaccines not yet widely distributed people are still playing it safe.
However, there will be counters at the gates and the festival is prepared to limit those who are allowed in to keep the festival grounds safe for everyone if attendance swells.
The festival grounds cover approximately 114 acres with many more acres set aside as parking lots. It’s easy to spread out, even if thousands are inside, and by limiting the number of “congregation appeals” like the headline entertainment it helps ensure people will keep moving around the property.
“We are doing our best to keep everyone safe,” Davis said “We think we have a good plan. We’ve really spent a lot of time on thinking of as many things as we can. For example, (at the time of this interview) all of our sinks in the restrooms and the urinals and toilets are being changed to no-touch valves. It’s a major undertaking. All of the main buildings putting air conditioned scrubbers in the air so that nothing but clean air is being circulated. Like the ag area. All of the air is being blown out and coming back in through 110 filters.”
The bathroom overhaul will have been completed well before the first day of the festival. Davis said there was no way people were going to go into the bathrooms, use them, flush one of the 400 toilets on the property and give the attendees time to sanitize everything quickly enough between each use. Then you have to add in the fact there are people who don’t sanitize when they’re done. The best thing he felt the festival could do was to have no-touch appliances. There will also be attendants in there wiping down the entire facility all day long.
According to Davis, the festival is spending approximately $600,000 on changes to make the festival as safe as possible. Every single person volunteering or working at the festival will be doing their part to make sure the experience is as safe as possible.
The festival’s ride operator has a policy written for all of his vendors. The festival is focusing largely on messaging. Davis said they are really putting the message out. He noticed that at the Super Bowl and at UF games, someone was walking around with a sign that says “please wear a mask” and he believes the friendly reminder seemed to work better than someone walking up and being the “mask police.” So the staff leaned into the mindset and will have messaging up all over the festival to remind attendees of the rules. There will also be frequent announcements to remind attendees of the new rules.
Another noticeable change will be the number of ambassadors on the property. Davis said it will be “reduced substantially” this year. A lot of volunteers are senior citizens and will still stay away from the crowds. Those who do come to volunteer will have multiple assets in place to ensure they are safe. Davis purchased foggers for the information booths and will have them sprayed every day. There are shields built in to a lot of the desks throughout the festival where guests can walk up and ask for help or for information.
The tents that house much of the entertainment on the property will not act as a “lounge” for attendees this year either. If you want to come to a show, you should come early because the only way you can stay is if you get one of the socially distanced seats. There will not be standing room and the tent will close once the seats are full. Once the show is over, everyone will be escorted out of the tent and it will be shut down to be cleaned and sanitized.
There will also be isolation tents in the park so if someone comes in and then begins to develop symptoms, EMS will have a safe and secure area to administer aid. Air purifying systems were purchased for each station.
Davis said he’s aware people will not agree with some of their choices no matter what the festival has chosen to do. He simply said, “You can’t please everyone” and added that not having the festival at all would have massively impacted the future of those in this community. Last year, he said, the ag shows — steer, swine and plant sales — raised approximately $1.37 million. That was spread among approximately 300 children. He said they have youth come back every year and tell them they wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to college without that money. He also added that the Florida Strawberry Festival is an agriculture fair at its very core. It was created to celebrate the strawberry harvest and so if they were going to have a 2021 festival, it needed to happen while the harvest was still going on.
Davis said their plan to keep everyone safe is detailed and fluid. He hopes everyone does their part in making sure that when they come they are being as safe and respectful of others as possible. But he said he firmly believes that while this year will be unlike any other attendees will still have a wonderful experience at the community-centric festival.
“You’re either all in or you’re not, and that’s how we felt,” Davis said. “We are doing a lot of things we hope will make a big difference. We can’t make everyone happy, but we have to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that we did everything we could to keep people safe. This is going to be a great festival. We just ask that you work with us to make sure this is safe and enjoyable for all of our guests.”