WILMINGTON — Organizers for the city’s largest annual festival say there are currently no plans to cancel the Azalea Festival. While acknowledging concerns that have preemptively shut down other major events — including Austin’s SXSW festival — Azalea organizers say they will plan additional precautions for dealing with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel form of the coronavirus, while forging ahead.
Last week, a Change.Org petition was launched to petition the City of Wilmington, Mayor Bill Saffo, and Azalea Festival Executive Director Alison Baringer English to cancel the event.
While the petition has just over 250 signatures so far, the concern is far from isolated. Across the county, increased precautions — and in some cases, cancellation — have affected large events and gatherings, especially those that will likely see people traveling across county and state lines to attend.
Reached for comment, Baringer English did not address the petition but noted the festival had updated its website to address COVID-19 concerns.
Yesterday, the website posted the following update:
Festival leadership has been monitoring the coronavirus situation carefully and collecting information from numerous organizations such as the CDC, WHO, International Festivals and Events Association, and other festivals and events across the country.
As recommended by the CDC from this source the Azalea Festival has opened and maintained communication with our local City and County health officials and leadership. All are monitoring this situation carefully.
As the situation develops, the Azalea Festival will be in constant communication with our local and state health authorities and will follow their lead and direction. Updates will be posted as needed.
As of this writing, the 2020 North Carolina Azalea Festival will still be held April 1-5th. The Festival will be taking additional precautions to remind our Festival guests, vendors, and staff of normal health and safety protocols, such as hand-washing, hand-sanitizing, and encouraging those sick to stay home.
Wilmington, New Hanover County involvement
While the Azalea Festival is a private non-profit event, both the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County could conceivably exert some control over the festival. The City of Wilmington could likely revoke the festival’s permit if sufficient health or other safety concerns presented themselves; however, a city spokesperson said Wilmington would defer to the county if there were any concerns.
According to the county, under normal circumstances a shut down by the county’s public health agency would be unlikely — but under “extraordinary circumstances,” and with the authorization of a State of Emergency, it could happen.
“All powers and duties for local public health are detailed in NC General Statue 130A. The public health law is fashioned to address communicable disease with specific individuals by restricting their movement and interaction with others under quarantine and isolation authority that the local public health agency has. For special events and mass gatherings, cancelation would be authorized by the powers set forth on the state and local level through the State of Emergency Declaration for NC (NC General Statute 166A),” according to Communication and Outreach Coordinator Kate Oelslager.
Oelslager noted that while the state has not recommended cancellation of mass gathering, it has offered guidance (which the county has echoed), that event organizers should urge “urge anyone sick or at risk of serious illness not to attend, find ways to give people more physical space, and to adopt lenient refund policies.”
According to Oelslager, “our team has been in conversations with Azalea Festival organizers over the last two weeks, and we will continue to work with them on following guidance to prevent the impact of COVID-19 in our area.”
On Tuesday, March 10, New Hanover County announced it was “implementing guidance for county events, to include: moving events to larger areas to allow people to maintain safe distances from each other, increasing handwashing and sanitation stations at events and county buildings, and county departments will not, for now, add any new in-person events to the calendar.”
According to the county, “people who are at-risk [including those with compromised immune systems] and those who have a respiratory illness should not attend events for the time being. As monitoring continues, depending on the risk of COVID-19 in the area, events may be canceled at any time, with little to no notice.” [Note: this applies primarily to county-operated events but, as noted above, could extend to privately operated large gatherings and events, but only if sufficient health concerns, and a State of Emergency authorization, were present.]
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001