The next few months are bringing some of the biggest in-person events to the Tampa Bay area in nearly a year, from the Florida State Fair to Wrestlemania to Plant City’s Florida Strawberry Festival, which opened this week for an 11-day run.
Now that Hillsborough County health officials have said the Super Bowl wasn’t a super spreader event as first feared, some have wondered if more events may open up. Organizers are focusing on keeping events outdoors when possible, with crowd capacity reduced, people spaced apart and face masks required.
There have been some crowd management success stories. None of Florida’s theme parks have been found to be a source of the super spread that many feared when they reopened last summer.
But that’s because they have more control at the turnstile, said Peter Lackman, captain of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. His board tried hard to think of a way to have a safe event, which typically would draw hundreds of thousands to Bayshore Boulevard for a raucous Tampa parade.
The big difference, Gasparilla organizers said, is that a ticketed event makes it easier to control capacity and crowd behavior, while a free public event, like a big parade, makes it nearly impossible.
“Knowing how Gasparilla is, it’s hard to imagine social distancing going on,” Lackman said.
He noted that the Super Bowl Experience, a ticketed event on the Riverwalk, was able to limit attendance and enforce mask and distancing rules. But the team’s boat parade was a free event, open to everyone, and as a result was a lot harder to control.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor defended the Bucs parade, noting it was held outside, where it’s less likely but still possible for the virus to spread. Plus, masks were required, she said, though no citations were issued for the many who didn’t wear them.
In a recent report, Hillsborough County health officials said there was only a slight increase in the area’s positivity rate of COVID-19 cases and just 57 cases were linked to Super Bowl events. Family gatherings, house parties and packed bars and restaurants were suspected as the most likely causes of infection.
Paul Davis, president of the Florida Strawberry Festival, said the determination to open the popular Plant City festival safely “is keeping me up at night.”
The organization spent $600,000 getting ready, he said. They have bought air scrubbers, put in acrylic shields at ticket stands and bathroom stalls, added sanitizing walk-through tunnels, hand-washing and sanitizing stations, widened the midway and reduced the number of rides to allow more space for the crowds.
The Strawberry Festival is renowned for its Southern hospitality and Disney-level of customer service, making it the state’s second most-attended fair with more than 560,000 visitors in 2019. Without its signature lineup of top music acts, Davis doesn’t expect those numbers this year.
But people are eager for a reason to get out of the house, and he said there will be signs all around reminding guests to wear a mask. A coronavirus advisory committee that includes doctors will be walking the grounds every day to advise them on crowd management.
“I know there are people resistant to wearing a mask and I try to explain that it’s out of courtesy to people sitting around you,” Davis said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The Strawberry Festival has no booze and that could be its best defense in the coronavirus era, Davis said.
“That makes a huge difference. People’s inhibitions go away and they are not so quick to social distance,” Davis said. “That’s a whole other quagmire, if you will.”
Davis is hopeful that long-time fans of the Strawberry Festival will bare with the new changes this year.
At the Florida State Fair, which will run April 22-May 2, masks will be required, showroom capacity will be limited, contact-free payments will be available and there will be an increased number of hand sanitizer locations throughout the fairgrounds.
As for Wrestlemania, which will occur April 10 and 11 with limited seating capacity at Raymond James Stadium, tickets would traditionally hit the market six months before the event. But the ongoing pandemic has made the situation complicated, as the company considers the safest way to permit fans into this year’s event. WWE has yet to officially announce when tickets will go on sale, but has said the crowd size will be cut back considerably.