Life has been rough the past 18 months for Tennesseans who make their living through the state’s tourism and festival industry.

Ruth Rico has made a name for herself selling Colombian cuisine from her food truck Delicias Colombianas throughout Nashville’s festival season, normally lasting from spring to fall. But over the last year and a half, she’s watched her income slow into a trickle since event after event canceled due to COVID-related reasons.

“Of festivals, there’s one or two around, but we’re still trying to find a way to get a hang of things,” Rico said.

Festivals across Tennessee all but ceased in March of 2020 when cities went into lockdown to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus. State and city guidelines regulated and limited non-essential services and gatherings. By May of 2020, small groups and non-contact entertainment were allowed to reopen, but many festival organizers chose to postpone or cancel festivals altogether for the rest of the year.

In doing so, they faced financial difficulties.

For instance, in Gallatin, Donna Belote — who is the executive director of Greater Gallatin, Inc. — planned two large-scale events a year and used the proceeds to sustain the organization and the historic Palace Theater, a silent movie theater that originally operated from 1913 to 1977. At the start of the pandemic, Belote postponed Square Fest, an arts-and-crafts festival, for months due to guidelines coming from the state. Square Fest was eventually canceled.

The Palace Theater was closed as well due to the pandemic, and because there was no money coming in, Belote said, “We were kind of like limping along thinking, ‘Are we going to get through this?’ And we did. We didn’t make any money, but we were able to sustain ourselves to keep the organization viable.”

Franklin, known for its themed festivals, also canceled all of its festivities in 2020 due to the steady incline of COVID-19 cases, which “was a challenge for the Heritage Foundation to weather as a nonprofit,” said Steve Citerin, the spokesperson for the organization.

Its three major events—the Main Street Festival, PumpkinFest and Dickens of a Christmas—were all canceled, losing thousands of visitors.

This year, the Heritage Foundation decided to move the Main Street Festival from April to July, allowing time for people to get the COVID vaccine. Their October festival, PumpkinFest, a popular event for children, is still moving forward, although with COVID-19 guidelines in place.

While festival organizers have started to recover, vendors have not.

Williamson County Parks and Recreations hosted its first festival of the year on Saturday and Sunday, a kite-flying event, after canceling more than 40 events since March of 2020. Despite having plans for more events, organizers found that food trucks are no longer willing to cater events without guaranteed income.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is that trucks are asking for a guarantee of participation numbers to be able to make it worth their while, but it’s difficult to do during COVID,” said Laurie Kamunen, the superintendent of community activities.

Kamunen added that cancellations can still happen and that it’s understandable.

Vendors place a lot at stake when making their living at festivals, tying money, stock and time to events that aren’t guaranteed to happen. Many festival organizers charge a fee for vendors seeking to sell their wares.

In Gallatin, vendors were at least allowed to transfer their fees to later dates as festivals were postponed.

“I had to sit in my sunroom and call 170 vendors,” Belote said. “They were very, very thankful that we didn’t cancel it, but postponed it. It really hurt them.”

As a vendor, Rico lost inventory due to cancellations and understood this sentiment well. After having few opportunities to sell food, Rico prepared diligently for the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, spending $35,000 in rent and freezers needed to make enough food for thousands of people. The event was postponed from June until September, but still, Ruth spent 15 days in preparation.

On Aug. 31, the day before the Bonnaroo Festival was to begin, vendors were informed that the event had been canceled after the grounds became saturated with water from flooding. As Rico watched vehicles struggle to flee the muddy grounds, she was thankful that she had invested in freezers to contain her meals. However, she lost thousands of dollars and time on an event that never happened. While most of her frozen food could be resold, 3,000 empanadas would never greet the mouths of hungry customers. She donated them instead.

“Well, things happen,” said Rico. “We’ll see how we recover everything we lost from this.”

Rico said that, thankfully, there’s still some work to be done. She participates in Conexión Américas’s food program at Casa Azafrán, which pays food vendors to prepare meals for donation into the community. Director Andrés Martinez said that they received funds from World Central Kitchen, an organization using food to promote local communities and entrepreneurs. Last year, Casa Azafrán participated in elections as an early-voting center. Rico was there as well, handing out free empanadas.

“Not only are we distributing boxes of fresh food … we’re distributing prepared meals that were prepared by chefs, entrepreneurs in our kitchen that were missing out work because they were missing out on festivals,” said Martinez.

Tennessee Lookout is a nonprofit news site covering state government and politics.

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