What COVID-19 pandemic? Northwest Florida festivals gear up for a busy season

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News
  • Okaloosa's daily COVID-19 positivity rate last Wednesday was 13.49%

In Okaloosa County, at least, the show(s) must go on.

In late February, the number of Americans killed by COVID-19 topped 500,000, more than the total number of American lives lost in World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War combined.

That somber milestone led many government officials to lower U.S. flags to half-staff in respect for the victims of the pandemic.

More:COVID-19 vaccine tracker: See how many people in Florida have been vaccinated, by county, state

Now, as spring inches closer, the routine budding of plants is joined by announcements of major festivals and concerts as many people look forward to “getting back to normal” as soon as possible.

People gather in 2019 at the Fort Walton Landing for the arrival of the Krewe of Bowlegs.

The announcements about the crowd-attracting events come when Okaloosa County is still far from being safely out of the coronavirus woods.

For example, the county’s daily COVID-19 positivity rate last Wednesday was 13.49%, while its rolling seven-day positivity rate stood at 12.65%.

There have been some recent signs of improvement, though.

In her latest coronavirus-tracking report from mid-February, Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the state Department of Health in Okaloosa County, noted that the county “has seen a rapid decline over the last two-week period in percent of positive tests from the previous two-week period in which all days were above 17%. While we have not dropped below 10% and still are a long way from being less than (the target of) 5%, this is an encouraging trend.”

Health officials, including those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, continue to urge people to take certain steps to decrease the chance of getting COVID-19.

The steps include covering one’s mouth and nose with an appropriate face mask, practicing physical distancing of at least 6 feet when outside the home, avoiding groups of people and limiting close contact with others (being within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more).

The pandemic obviously remains a top concern and, “No one is being forced to attend an outdoor event,” Ted Corcoran, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday.

The Krewe of Bowlegs arrives at the Fort Walton Landing in 2019 for the annual Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival.

Chamber officials recently shared news about the 65th Annual Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival and Torchlight Parade in downtown Fort Walton Beach.

Organized by the chamber and The Krewe of Bowlegs, the bulk of this festival’s activities are scheduled for April 30 and May 1, with the parade on May 3.

More:Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival to be celebrated this year in spring instead of summer

“The original Bowlegs festival was held Labor Day weekend but quickly moved to the first weekend in June to promote summer tourism,” chamber officials said in a festival announcement. “June is now one of the busiest months of the year for tourism, which led to the decision to move to a weekend that would benefit both our tourists, by offering more budget-friendly pricing, and our hotel partners, by filling the region during an off-peak time. This cost-effective decision will in turn entice more out of town visitors to come for a weekend getaway — and stay 4 nights to enjoy the parade Monday evening. The new date will also offer more comfortable temperatures for all of the outdoor festival activities.”

Nearly 2,000 attended the Shrimp and Grits Fest in Destin earlier this month.

The chamber also endorses the International Festival, which is set for March 20 at Fort Walton Landing in downtown Fort Walton Beach. The celebration will include live and DJ music, folkloric groups, artists and food.

Corcoran noted that it’s been almost a year since businesses, beaches and other areas began being shut down because of the coronavirus.

"We live in an area where people love to do things outside,” he said. “David Triana (who spearheads the International Festival), The Krewe and the chamber got together and we said, ‘We’re not forcing anybody to go’ to the upcoming festivals. That’s the key issue. But we heard from enough people who said, ‘We look forward to things being returned back to normal and going to outdoor events. Please bring them back.’ ”

The International Festival will serve as the “template” as far as showing how the community responds to outdoor festivals being held once again, Corcoran said.

“Every event will maintain social distancing and everything we’ve learned (to protect oneself from the virus) in the past year,” he said. “But if you don’t want to go, don’t go.”

Another upcoming festival is the 15th Annual Triple B BBQ Fest, which is scheduled for March 27 on Main Street in downtown Crestview.

Led by the nonprofit Main Street Crestview Association and supported by the city, the festival will feature live music and fireworks in addition to an abundance of barbecue dishes.

Another upcoming festival is the 15th Annual Triple B BBQ Fest, which is scheduled for March 27 on Main Street in downtown Crestview.

Late last December, the city hosted its annual Christmas tree lighting and Christmas parade, with parade participants socially distanced and mask-wearing encouraged.

“We continue to take the position that people need to be able to make their own decisions” on whether to attend large events, Crestview City Manager Tim Bolduc said Thursday. “We have partnered with Main Street and there will be extra hand-cleaning stations available (during the Triple B BBQ Fest), and mask-wearing will be welcome. We want people to be safe. But at the end of the day, people need to make their own decisions.”

More:NO MORE MULLET: COVID, financial woes, end Boggy Fest after 44 years

In Destin, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation recently announced a series of 10 outdoor concerts scheduled for the spring and early summer at the Mattie Kelly Cultural Arts Village.

The series begins with “The Music of Queen” on April 22 and ends with “Air National Guard-Band of the South” on June 24.