By Richard Rourk
The 2021 Apple Festival moved forward another step to returning next month following a called meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Alderman on Tuesday, Aug. 31.
Last year’s festival had to be canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
The BMA voted 5-1, with Vice Mayor Mark Lafever being the lone no vote, to close Main Street and other streets in the downtown area for the 2021 Apple Festival beginning on Thursday, Sept. 30, at 5 p.m. through Sunday, Oct. 3, at midnight.
“This body doesn’t decide on the Apple Festival,” stated Erwin Mayor Glenn White. “We grant them (festival organizers) access to the town.”
The mayor added that he has fielded many questions about the Apple Festival.
“So I felt we should have a meeting with Unicoi County Health Department Director Michelle Ramsey and Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp for updates,” White said.
Ramsey gave an update on the local impact of the pandemic to the BMA before the vote.
“Right now we have 231 active Covid positive cases as of yesterday,” Ramsey said. “You hear a lot about positivity rates, and you would like to see a rate of 5 percent or lower. Our current positivity rate is 22.3 percent, so that’s a little high.”
She also addressed vaccination rates.
“We are hovering around 42 percent of citizens vaccinated,” Ramsey said. “We are doing better than other counties in vaccinations, but I do encourage those that haven’t yet to get vaccinated. This is an outdoor event so that is good. I would recommend practicing safe distancing and wearing masks.”
Delp followed Ramsey to discuss the state of 2021’s Apple Festival.
“In our planning, we have kept COVID in our minds,” Delp said. “We are looking at ways to reduce the COVID risks. We have ordered hands-washing stations. We have ordered gallons of hand sanitizer. We will also offer masks. We have reduced to 12 food vendors and reduced our vendors overall. Working with vendors we are asking for no touch payment systems.”
Delp added that those same vendors and a possible second year in a row without an Apple Festival are also a concern for the Chamber.
“We are so close to festival time, if we were to cancel, vendors would be hurt,” Delp said. “They have ordered their products to sell. The apple butter is made. There would be no way these businesses would be able to recoup. This is how our vendors pay their bills by attending festivals.”
Delp told The Erwin Record that with the passing of this measure, the 2021 Apple Festival will be held as planned on Oct. 1-3.
“We are on,” Delp said. “We still have a lot to iron out.”
Town of Erwin Alderman Michael Baker voiced concerns for the Town of Erwin employees that would have to work the Apple Festival.
“My concern is our employees,” Baker said. “This event is optional for attendees but not our employees. What I would like to hear is what we will do if a majority of our employees are to get COVID during the festival. I feel we need a plan This is something we needed months ago, not 28 days before.”
Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever voiced concern about the Chamber’s planning.
“I would like to know the hard numbers of the gallons of sanitizer, how many and where the hand washing stations will be located,” Lafever said. “Was the festival plan brought to the Chamber board of directors given the current circumstances and peak COVID numbers? We have to take into consideration our city employees and how this will impact them.
“The city needs concrete plans to protect our employees when they’re going to be in contact with thousands of people for two days straight,” he continued.
In addition, Lafever said he thinks the city should be prepared to deal with possible COVID spread through its departments.
“It seems these are things that would need to be ironed out beforehand,” he noted.
Citizens and vendors had a chance to speak during a public comment portion of the meeting prior to the vote.
The BMA is scheduled to meet again on Monday, Sept. 13, at 5:30 p.m., inside Erwin Town Hall.