With crowd restrictions still in place, organizers for HonFest, Artscape and other events are in limbo

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Say it ain’t so, hon. Spring in Baltimore without HonFest?

It’s a distinct possibility this year, with Maryland now in the second month of a state-mandated lockdown that limits the size of public gatherings as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Which leaves organizers wondering: Will today’s crowd limitations still be in place on June 13 and 14, when HonFest is scheduled to take over Hampden for its 28th annual weekend?

“We just don’t know,” said Denise Whiting, owner of Café Hon on W. 36th Street and an organizer of the annual event that celebrates beehive hairdos, cat-eye glasses and all things hon.

“We’ve organized everything. We have our sponsors lined up. My liquor distributors are doing fine…We’re just going to have to see what happens, at this point.”

Whiting said she’s done as much planning as possible, but this is a new situation. Like dozens of local festivals and street fairs, HonFest is up in the air because organizers don’t have the last word on whether to hold this year’s event. The state does.

And it’s not just HonFest. Dozens of street fairs and other outdoor events are planned for the next few months in Baltimore, from the Fourth of July Fireworks at the Inner Harbor and Artscape in midtown to AFRAM in Druid Hill Park and cultural festivals around the city.

On March 5, Hogan declared a state of emergency in Maryland as a way to slow the spread of the virus, and then he followed that with an executive order “prohibiting large gatherings and events.”

As signed by Hogan on March 12 and restated on March 16, the order on crowd sizes states that “[P]lanned large gatherings and events must be canceled or postponed until after termination of the state of emergency and the proclamation of the catastrophic health emergency has been rescinded.”

The crowd limit was originally no more than 250 people and then it was amended to 50. On March 19, Hogan prohibited events that draw more than 10 people, to be consistent with federal guidelines. His order has affected the start of the Orioles season, the Preakness and dozens of conventions, plays and concerts.

As of Thursday morning, Maryland has seen 21,742 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 1,047 deaths from it.

Last week Hogan outlined a three-phase “Maryland Strong: Road to Recovery” plan showing in what order restrictions might be lifted, with the ban on large public gatherings in the third and final phase. But he warned that the state isn’t even ready for the first phase yet, based on the number of hospitalizations and people in intensive care.

With no end to the ban in sight, event organizers have to wait and see if it’s lifted in time for their events to take place.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which produces Artscape, still lists that event on its website as being scheduled for July 17 to 19. This year’s theme for the festival, which would be the 39th, is “Art for A Healthy City.” Fallback options could include scaling it back, pushing it to later in the year, making it a virtual event or canceling it entirely for 2020.

For the city, much is at stake. The three-day event typically draws an estimated 350,000 people a year, has an economic impact of $28.5 million, and brings positive attention to the city. Last month, a USA Today poll named Artscape one of the Top 10 cultural festivals in the country for 2020.

Asked about its status, BOPA communications director Tracy Baskerville replied: “As soon as we have an update on Artscape, we will let you know.”

A March 10 post on BOPA’s Facebook page said, “As of today, no other upcoming BOPA festivals or programs have been canceled or postponed.”

This would have been the weekend for the Flower Mart, the event in Mount Vernon that’s synonymous with lemon sticks and the coming of spring in Baltimore. Vendors would normally be setting up booths around the base of the Washington Monument and musicians would be rehearsing for their performances and hoping for good weather, but not this year.

The nonprofit Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which took over organization of the festival in 2019, decided to cancel this year’s event on March 16, just as federal and state officials were issuing orders to suspend large public gatherings.

The Flower Mart, which drew about 8,000 people last year, was one the first events in Baltimore to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. It was the second time in five years that the event couldn’t be held as planned, following a decision in 2015 to postpone that year’s event until September due to the Baltimore Uprising.

Lance Humphries, executive director of the conservancy, said it was a wrenching decision this year because organizers had lined up dozens of vendors and musicians and were looking forward to a successful event.

He said his group heard the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s March 12th warning to have no gatherings of more than 250 people, and concluded it wouldn’t be possible to hold the Flower Mart, despite all their planning.

“It was really tough,” he said. “We just said there is no way this is going to right itself by May 1.”

Humphries said organizers rely on a large group of volunteers to help put on the event and they worried about everyone’s safety.

“We said we just can’t put out a call for volunteers,” he said. “It’s not safe. People are not going to feel comfortable about this, and rightly so.”

And from an organizer’s standpoint, even if the ban on large gatherings were lifted at the last minute, “it’s just a tremendous responsibility to monitor people’s behaviors,” he said. “No one wants to put anybody in harm’s way.”

Humphries said the conservancy opted not to postpone the event until the fall, the way previous organizers did in 2015. He said Baltimoreans tend to associate the Flower Mart with springtime and “it didn’t feel organic” to move it to another time of year. In addition, he said, organizers weren’t sure that the current health crisis would be over in September. “We didn’t know what the playbook would be.”

The conservancy, which is responsible for maintaining and programming the public spaces around the Washington Monument, still has plans on its calendar to hold a dozen more events there over the summer, including outdoor movies and concerts.

Humphries said they haven’t been cancelled, but the conservancy is once again looking to guidance from public health experts and others on whether they can be held safely. “It’s all in flux,” he said. “For anybody who’s doing public programming right now, it’s just kind of like this huge waiting game. There’s tremendous uncertainty.”

As for next year’s Flower Mart, Humphries said people have been understanding and he’s optimistic that this year’s cancellation won’t keep the public from coming in 2021, assuming the health crisis is addressed. By then, he said, “I think everybody will be itching for experiences like this.”

Whiting, meantime, said she knows that HonFest isn’t the only local event caught in the lurch right now. “We’re all in the same boat.”

One big question for her, she said, involves attendance. “If they open it back up, are people going to come?”

Whiting said she isn’t sure HonFest will have the same format as in past years, with a big stage at the intersection on 36th Street.

But she isn’t ready to give up. She muses about the possibility of having a virtual HonFest, broadcast live on Facebook. A highlight every year is a contest to select the best hon, and that means putting the word out for people to dress up.

“We never know who’s going to compete,” she said. “It’s always a surprise.”

Above all, she said, she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone.

“We’re going to do something,” she said. “We’re just not sure what.”



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