Normally in mid-January New Orleanians are happily stuffing their faces with King Cake, building up a protective layer of sugary goodness for Carnival as they peruse the freshly released lineup for that year’s Jazz Fest.
Like that undersized nutria eyeing its shadow for folks up north, the annual release of the Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest lineups give us a glimpse of the coming spring even before the first Carnival parades start. Even too-cool-for-school hipsters who scoff at the idea of rubbing elbows with Jazz Fest Dads at the track look forward to these releases.
But COVID-19 has thrown even these small traditions into chaos. City officials have put New Orleans back into a near lockdown as a major spike in cases hits the United States. Barrooms are closed, live music is essentially banned and there will be no parades this year. Rather than looking for festival lineups, we’re reading tea leaves, trying to divine whether there will even be a festival season.
It all has locals wondering when or if they’ll socialize at outdoor events again.
There is some good news. While French Quarter Fest hasn’t announced a lineup, it’s staked out dates from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, and organizers say they hope they’ll be able to put on a full-on festival. They hope improvements in the coronavirus situation will allow attendees to spread out and enjoy live music on the event’s normal array of more than 20 stages and vendors throughout the quarter.
“Vaccinations were giving us a lot of hope and optimism,” CEO Emily Madero says. “For the last six months, we’ve been going along a dual planning track so we could be ready to produce events as soon as it was possible. We hadn’t ruled out April, and at this point, I think we know April isn’t going to be possible, so we’re shifting to our fall dates. Based on conversations with public health officials and the city and peer organizations nationally, no one knows exactly what the future holds, but there’s a lot of confidence that we’ll be in a safer environment.”
While Jazz Fest has not officially announced plans, several news organizations reported last week that it will be postponed from April and May to October. Meanwhile, its owner, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, is making plans for some of its free festivals. The Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival will not happen again until March 2022. The fate of the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, normally slated for October, is not yet determined, says Kia Robinson, the foundation’s director of programming and communications. But she does expect its combined Treme Creole Gumbo Festival and Congo Square Rhythms Festival to be in Louis Armstrong Park in November, possibly with a larger footprint in the park and with other safety precautions, such as staggering entrance times. The lack of steady progress controlling the coronavirus has made planning difficult.
“It feels like we’re starting over every month,” Robinson says.
From there, things get murkier. Other major music festivals have previously announced dates but declined to discuss planning. BUKU Music + Art Project won’t return until 2022, but it has announced a smaller event for October. In April 2020, Voodoo Music + Art Experience announced its next festival would be in October but has offered no update since.
New Orleans Film Festival organizers say it will be back in November, and they’re dealing more with format changes. To hold a 2020 event, it switched to a hybrid of online and outdoor screenings. More than 3,000 attendees watched movies at the Broadside and two temporary screening sites on the Lafitte Greenway. Though overall viewership was down, feedback was good on both fronts, says New Orleans Film Society Executive Director Fallon Young. People watched slates of short films at all hours online, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for outdoor screenings. But the costs of setting up outdoor screenings, including an LED lit screen for daytime movies, was expensive and may not be easy to reproduce once pandemic concerns abate, she says.
Planning on working on a tighter budget has Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo working on a smaller event on its normal dates, the third weekend in May. Normally it presents a mix of local bands on three stages along Bayou St. John, but it may move to an established venue, such as the Broadside or Tuck’s Funky Uncle, to save on costs. Festival founder Jared Zeller says he’s fortunate to have grant support from the Jazz & Heritage Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, but he must use the NEA funds by June 1, or lose them.
Like a lot of the smaller festival organizers, Zeller isn’t sure he can afford another lost season. “Last year, we lost four to five months of planning, staff salaries and expenses when the event was canceled,” he says. “We don’t have the capacity to reinvent ourselves every year.”
Missing another spring is a huge challenge to Hogs for the Cause, the barbecue festival that raises funds for families with children being treated for pediatric brain cancer. The festival was two weeks from its March 2020 event when it decided to pull the plug. It was already loading in equipment on the grounds of the UNO Lakefront Arena for 90 barbecue teams and three music stages, but organizers realized the pandemic would likely intervene before the March 27 opening day.
Festival co-founder Becker Hall says they’ve ruled out holding an event in the first half of 2021, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to do so even in the second half of the year. There’s competition for available weekend dates later in the year, and organizers want to be careful about the risk of an event being disrupted by a hurricane or other unforeseen event. While a full-scale Hogs might not be possible, a smaller-scale event might be easier to organize in a shorter time frame.
“In today’s world, you don’t need nine months (to plan),” Hall says. “You don’t have musicians traveling around as much. You don’t have vendors all over the place. You don’t have stages in different places that need to be hauled in. Putting something together quicker is easier.”
But Hall remains worried and says he doesn’t know if the nonprofit organization will survive if it misses another year. “Last year was devastating,” Hall says. “Two years? I don’t know if we can overcome it, unfortunately. It’s crippling.”