Pandemic a whammy for Tucson's normally busy events season

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The El Tour De Tucson cycling event has ben postponed from November to April. The Fourth Avenue Winter Street Fair, an open-air retail extravaganza, was canceled. The Tucson Festival of Books will be held virtually next March. And the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase’s producers are reviewing health safety guidelines to see whether a scaled-back version of their high-profile event can be staged as scheduled for two weeks starting Jan. 30

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All told, fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a punishing blow to Tucson where dozens of winter and spring events normally attract crowds big and small.

“It’s crushing to watch our local businesses, and ours being one of them, being decimated. But in the same token, we’ve never experienced something like this," said Monique Vallery, creative director for the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association.

Tucson’s streets will be abnormally empty during Tucson’s festival season, typically a six-month stretch that includes festivals, trade shows and cultural gatherings, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

To develop a path for the events to be continued in person, Pima County health officials earlier this month released a special-event permit application to comply with Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order that limits gatherings of more than 50 people.

The 13-page application includes questions about physical distancing, hygiene requirements and attendance limits.

“It made sense to develop a form that helped guide people’s thinking, so that they would be able to go through that process to come up with a mitigation plan,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county’s health director.

However, officials acknowledged it’s unrealistic to expect that the festival season, particularly in the spring, will go on as normal.

“Tucson is evolving into a 52-week town, but the heat makes an influx of visitors come in the winter,” said Diane Frisch, the county’s director of attractions and tourism. “That’s the prime season for us. … With COVID, it’s devastating for all of us.”

The tourism industry in Pima County had $2.6 billion in direct spending last year.

Visit Tucson CEO and President Brent DeRaad said hotel revenues have dropped 35-40% due to the coronavirus.

“All of these events, they add to our culture, they’re part of the fabric of our community. We’re sad to see them go virtual or consider that option,” DeRaad said. “But based on what we’re facing with the pandemic and the fact that there are really no guidelines in terms of past pandemic to follow, it’s difficult to determine how to best move ahead.”

The gem event, a conglomerate of about 50 shows, draws thousands of people from around the globe. The 2019 show garnered $131 million in direct economic spending, according to a study.

Show owners have been meeting regularly with government officials, including Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, to discuss the parameters of holding shows. Each would have to individually obtain the special-event permits.

Those discussions are primarily centered on the “question of how many limbs can we cut off and feel we can still have the show we want to have,” according to Peter Megaw, co-chair of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.

Megaw said that “everything is under consideration,” for their show, which not only provides opportunities to purchase gems, but also educational programming, with guest speakers from around the globe, as well as exhibits designed for kids. They may be forced to limit the total number of booths.

“We’re reluctant to put on an excessively diminished show,” he said.