Rochester's summer festivals are gone - but hope remains for fall 

Kiss Rochester’s summer festival season goodbye — and what the event schedule looks like for autumn is uncertain.

City spokesperson Justin Roj said a moratorium has been placed on issuing permits for special events through at least the end of August, and that festival organizers are being told they should feel free to start planning for the fall.  
click to enlarge A scene from the 2016 ROC Pride festival. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • A scene from the 2016 ROC Pride festival.

But the future remains murky for some events, especially those that rely on city sponsorships, and the largest festivals, which typically require a permit from the state Health Department.

The city budget is due in May and Roj acknowledged that the city might have to pull back on funding for special events due to a likely shortfall in sales taxes, parking fees, and other revenue streams.

“It’s one of those things where everything is on the table, with the understanding that we need to provide essential services,” Roj said. “Police, fire, environmental services, and other services like them, these are the things that need to remain. It’s not an expense problem, it’s a revenue problem.”

On Monday, the city launched an online survey asking residents for their priorities in the upcoming spending plan that appeared to put out feelers for festivals. Questions specifically asked about funding for and attendance at special events.

The 2019-20 city budget set aside just under $2 million for special events. Many large festivals, including the Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Fringe Festival, and the Puerto Rican Festival, receive subsidies.

Due to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 shutdown orders, gatherings and events across the state are on hold, including the Lilac Festival, the Jazz Festival, and ROC Pride.

Jazz Festival organizers announced Monday that they've rescheduled the event for October 2 to 10.

"These plans are fully predicated on being able to gather safely according to recommendations of our health and government officials," reads a press release from the festival.

Pride organizers also have tentative plans to hold that event in the fall while the Lilac Festival, if it happens, will take place long after the lilacs have wilted.

“Most of the direction is coming from the governor’s office,” said Tamara Leigh, director of communications for the Out Alliance, which organizes ROC Pride, which typically takes place in July. “Unfortunately, the way things are, it’s very difficult to say what level of open we’ll be (in July). All we can say is we’re definitely not doing Pride in July.”

Most festivals are issued operating permits by their municipalities. But the largest of them, those that expect to draw more than 5,000 people, also must get a permit from the state Health Department.

Responding to inquiries about where those permits stand, an agency spokesperson wrote in an email that, consistent with the governor’s orders, “all large gatherings have been suspended until further notice.”

Roj said the city is also taking a cautionary approach.

“In the absence of information, we’re going to act with an abundance of caution,” Roj said. “Whether it’s from the county Health Department or the state, we haven’t received long-term guidance, and I understand why, it’s a fluid situation.”

City Council in February approved a $243,000 subsidy for the Jazz Festival, which was to be held in June, and authorized an $80,000 subsidy for the Puerto Rican Festival in March.
click to enlarge Empirical performs at the 2019 Rochester International Jazz Festival. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Empirical performs at the 2019 Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Last week, organizers of the Puerto Rican Festival, which was slated for August, announced they were pushing off the event until 2021.

“That was a result of obviously internal conversations we had among the board but also with the city to get a feel from a special events standpoint,” said Orlando Ortiz, president of the Puerto Rican Festival board. “You know, are they going to be issuing permits into August? If they’re not issuing permits, you can’t have a festival.”  
click to enlarge Puerto Rican Festival - FILE PHOTO
  • Puerto Rican Festival

The Fringe Festival, scheduled for September, is currently still on, although the organizers have pushed back the application deadline for performers.

Festival producer Erica Fee said she is hopeful the festival will take place, but added that organizers would follow guidance from county Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza.

“At this point it is too early to make any determination regarding the postponement, modification, or cancellation of the 2020 festival,” Fee said. “We are committed to Fringe maintaining its role as Rochester's arts festival for all, and are hopeful we will be welcoming the community to another exciting 12 days of Fringe this fall.”

As of right now, the county is also waiting on the state to determine when large events will be allowed again.
click to enlarge French street theater troupe Plasticiens Volants amazed crowds in 2017 with its immersive "Big Bang" show at Parcel 5. - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • French street theater troupe Plasticiens Volants amazed crowds in 2017 with its immersive "Big Bang" show at Parcel 5.
“Festivals and special events are part of the larger picture as we look at reopening things,” Steve Barz, the county Health Department spokesperson, said. “These are discussions and decisions that are still in the initial stages after the Governor announced the regional plan earlier in the week.”

Cuomo has revealed plans to reopen New York in stages, and by region, possibly beginning May 15.

Even if Rochester is fully open by the time of the new festival dates, most festival organizers say their events will likely look different, with measures in place to ensure attendees adhere to safety and physical distancing guidelines.

“We don’t have anything set in stone yet, but they’re conversations we’re having,” Leigh, of the Out Alliance, said. “We want to do something that represents our community proudly, but also keeps them safe.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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