City Notes: Worthington navigates event planning through challenging times

Darren Hurley
City of Worthington

When the pandemic began in March 2020 and things started to shut down and change, most people initially didn’t think about impacts to our favorite festivals and special events.

Our focus was on our jobs, kids in school, groceries and more of our day-to-day essentials.  However, as stay-at-home orders emerged and gatherings of more than 10 were discouraged or prohibited, people started to wonder what it meant for our cherished opportunities to come together with our communities. 

Darren Hurley

The city of Worthington offers a variety of special events directly and supports many events throughout the year that are organized by partner organizations and groups. City leaders formed a planning group charged with being a resource and communications hub to help assess each event and determine if it could proceed safely. The group, made up of mostly Parks and Recreation Department staff, utilized input and resources from Columbus Public Health to help organizers with an initial assessment of their events and to explore creative alternatives for offering events under new guidelines.

Initially, there were too many questions and unknowns to move ahead, and many spring and summer festivals and special events in 2020 had to be canceled. However, as safety protocols became known, some activities could be done with careful planning and coordination. For example, our annual egg hunt event was canceled, but we pivoted to driving the Easter Bunny around town in the back of a parks truck. We published the parade route, and families came outside to see the bunny and wave. It was a big hit and lifted spirits while most people were confined to their homes.

For the rest of 2020, that seemed to be the theme of the group. Adapt existing festivals and events to something that could be done virtually, on a much smaller scale or with much greater spacing and time to keep crowds and contact minimized. It was effective for a season, but as we enter the time for these activities in 2021, there is a palatable push for more normalcy. As we start to come around to events for a second time during the pandemic, the focus becomes how we can restore these great community staples to something closer to their normal status.

The planning group is back at it, working closely with organizers and considering some of the following factors in making decisions for 2021 events:

• Indoors or outdoors

• Size of crowd expected

• Ability to space participants, event staff and volunteers

• Ability to stretch the time of the event to reduce crowding

• Contact points and cleaning challenges

• Practicality of wearing masks

• Ability to contact trace/know who attends

• Date of the event and deadline for deciding by organizers

• Projections from the health department on vaccinations and infection rates

• Flexibility of the event to adapt to meet basic protocols

For example, our popular summer concert series on the Village Green usually kicks off in May. Because it is a weekly event and we believe vaccination rates will improve greatly by early summer, we have elected to bump our starting date into June. That adaptation, along with requiring spacing between spectators, is among the ways we are planning to safely bring back that Worthington staple for our residents. 

Other local organizations have worked to restore events during this time, as well. The Worthington Partnership was one of the first to adapt its award-winning farmers market first to a drive-thru event and then to a more socially distanced in-person activity. Flexibility and teamwork have been the keys for all those involved, including participants.

A silver lining has been that we have found new ways to provide some services and have learned to integrate technology to events much faster than we would have otherwise. One thing that stands out to me the most is the added appreciation by all for the great festivals and special events in Worthington. I guess it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Darren Hurley is the Worthington Parks and Recreation Department director.