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Impact of COVID-19: Canceled festivals means big losses for nonprofits
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Impact of COVID-19: Canceled festivals means big losses for nonprofits

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series
Festivals and COVID-19

A sign that traditionally hangs on a float in the Syttende Mai Festival parade in Stoughton will remain in storage this year in the former railroad depot that is home to the Stoughton Chamber of Commerce. Callie LaPoint, events and visitor services manager for the chamber, said the festival has been canceled due to health concerns, which will mean big losses for nonprofits that use the festival for fundraising.

Sausages wrapped in lefse bring in cash for Stoughton High School’s Norwegian Dancers. EMS volunteers in Gays Mills raise money with a soup supper and breakfast of pancakes and eggs. Mount Horeb’s local bands, a beer tent, parade and carnival contribute to the community good.

Only this year, much of the food, stages, midways and taps of beer in plastic cups are being added to the growing list of lost opportunities as community festivals and other special events are scrubbed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens more are in jeopardy, due to social distancing guidelines.

The losses bring not only disappointment, and more boredom, for a sequestered state. They also mean less money for the nonprofits that rely on the spring and summer staples for large chunks of their yearly budgets.

Syttende Mai

Jon Waterbury, 17, of Oconomowoc, reacts after completing the atlas stone event for the fifth annual Strongman competition during the 2018 Syttende Mai Festival in Stoughton.

“This is a very large impact,” said Callie LaPoint, events and visitor services manager for the Stoughton Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the now-canceled Syttende Mai Festival. More than 20 nonprofits run food stands at the three-day festival, which celebrates Norwegian culture and typically draws more than 20,000 people.

“This is one of their largest fundraisers of the year,” she said. “And it’s more than our nonprofits that feel this. It’s our downtown establishments, restaurants, it’s our hotels, our gas stations. It impacts the entire community.”

The Gays Mills Spring Festival was also called off, as was the Mount Horeb Summer Frolic in June.

On Friday, Isthmus announced it is canceling its Paddle & Portage event, which would have marked its 41st year June 20.

And there are scores of other events around the state in jeopardy. Last week, Gov. Tony Evers extended the “safer at home” order to May 26, officially wiping out dozens of events, including those over Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.

Festivals and COVID-19

The Syttende Mai Festival has been a part of Stoughton for 66 years, but this year's event, originally set for May 15-17, was canceled. These festival buttons are displayed at the Stoughton Chamber of Commerce office.

Statewide pain

Losses in Stoughton will be in the thousands of dollars for most of the nonprofits. What would have been the 67th Syttende Mai Festival from May 15-17 was scheduled to include a 20-mile run, fiddlers, choirs, dancers, canoe races on the Yahara River and a massive parade downtown. The Sons of Norway group was going to sell baked goods, the Rotary Club corn on the cob and the FFA cheese curds and cream puffs.

Rescheduling the festival would have conflicted with other community events and competed with other festivals in the area. LaPoint said she hopes to set up a page on the Syttende Mai website to allow people to donate to the nonprofits, but she knows it won’t match what could have been.

“At least it’ll be an avenue for people if they decide they want to donate to some of these groups,” LaPoint said.

Festivals and COVID-19

A sign on the marquee of the Stoughton Village Players theater in Stoughton encourages residents to support area businesses during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. 

The number of festivals and events that have been called off will have statewide impact. They include Festa Italia in Fitchburg, which had been scheduled for May 29-31; the Montello Fish-N-Fun Fest (May 1-3); Taylor County Lions Maple Fest in Medford and the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championships in Dodgeville (April 25); the Jefferson Swap Meet and Car Show (April 24-26); and the Portage County Cultural Festival in Stevens Point (May 9). In Milwaukee, Polish Fest (June 12-14) is postponed, German Fest (July 24-26) is canceled and Summerfest, normally held at the end of June and beginning of July, has been moved to September.

Sauk County Fair

Jazmin Olson, 12, of Baraboo, pets her 3-month-old goat, Jeff, as they wait for competition during the 2019 Sauk County Fair in Baraboo.

The status of the state’s 75 county, regional and state fairs, which begin their run at the end of June, is unclear. Those events are packed with food stands run by pork, beef, honey and dairy producers and a myriad of other service groups.

One of the earliest is the Sauk County Fair, which is scheduled for July 8 in Baraboo and has been held since 1855. The fair is a nonprofit, not part of county government, so it relies on revenue from ticket sales and the rental of fair buildings to fund their operations year-round. Other nonprofit groups also use the seven-day event for fundraising.

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Sauk County Fair

The Sauk County Fair in Baraboo provides a major fundraising opportunity for 4H clubs throughout the county that sell food at a dedicated pavilion each year. The fair is still on at this point, but it's unclear if it will be postponed or canceled.

Liz Cook, secretary-manager of the fair, has been taking part in videoconferences with other fairs and the Wisconsin Association of Fairs to brainstorm ideas in case the fair needs to change. Ideas include showing animals and other exhibits virtually, but that would still kill any fundraising efforts by local groups.

“It would be a pretty substantial loss for them,” Cook said. “They’d have to come up with something different, which everyone is doing.”

La Fete de Marquette

La Fete de Marquette at McPike Park in Madison draws thousands of people each July. Organizers say they will make a decision May 1 about plans for this year's festival.

Fate of Madison events unclear

In Madison, organizers of La Fete de Marquette (July 9-12) say they will announce May 1 whether they plan to hold, move or cancel the event held at McPike Park. Tiffany Kenney, executive director of the Central Business Improvement District, said the May 14 Night Market, the first of four throughout the summer, is being moved to October.

The fate of Art Fair on the Square, set for July 11-12 and which draws 200,000 people and 500 artists, will be decided by mid-May. The event, in its 62nd year, raises around $350,000 a year for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which is about 14% of its budget.

“As you can imagine, we’re just really keeping an eye on things,” said Marni McEntee, communications director for the museum. “We’re monitoring things almost hourly and being very mindful of what the official recommendations are. It is huge and (the crowds are) close and so that’s definitely a factor that has to be considered.”

Art Fair on the Square

Art Fair on the Square draws 500 artists and about 200,000 people to the Capitol Square. The two-day event in July has not been canceled or postponed, but organizers say they are monitoring the situation on an almost hourly basis.

Close quarters were a concern for Jerry Butalla, one of the organizers of the Wisconsin State Polka Festival at the Sterling Chalet in Richfield, northwest of Milwaukee. The three-day event was to begin May 22. In its 42nd year, it typically draws 350 people and was to feature six bands. Butalla had planned to make a decision by May 1, but Evers beat him to the punch.

“Even if we (did) have it, who was going to come?” Butalla mused.

Madison Night Market

Ana Kosaian, a UW-Madison student from Michigan, takes photos of fellow students Monica Brodsky of Melrose (from left), and Brenna Bernards and Lilia Tisch, both of DeForest. The four were at the first Madison Night Market of 2019. This year's May market will be moved to October, with three others scattered throughout the summer.

In southwestern Wisconsin, the Muscoda Village Board spent less than two minutes Tuesday discussing the Morel Mushroom Festival before voting to cancel the event set for May 16-17. The festival serves as fundraisers for the Riverdale Wrestling Club and the local Lego Club, which each had food stands last year. The American Legion also has a food stand and makes more than $5,000 buying and selling morel mushrooms. The proceeds are used to support the Legion baseball team, to send students to Badger Girls State and to buy flags for the downtown.

“I don’t think anyone was surprised,” Linda Post, chair of the festival committee. “The festival is a real integral part of the community, and it’s a real disappointment. It’s just really unfortunate.”

The 30-member, all-volunteer EMS unit in Gays Mills serves three villages and parts of six rural towns. A soup supper in March raises about $1,000, and a pancake breakfast as part of the Gays Mills Spring Festival nets the service about $2,000. While not as big as the fall apple festival, the loss of the spring fundraisers will leave a mark, said Larry McCarn, who has been an EMT for 15 years.

“We’ll get by, but you just won’t be able to do as much,” McCarn, 67, said. “It’s just a strange time.”


The MoHo Gators swim team engages in its annual battle with a Henry Street home during last year's Mount Horeb Summer Frolic parade. The Frolic will not be held this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mount Horeb Summer Frolic was founded in 1967 and takes place the first weekend after school lets out in mid-June. Proceeds from the four-day event have gone toward parks, youth sports, the village’s aquatic center, free summer concert series and a community garden. Nine service clubs also commit volunteers to the Frolic and, in return, each organization — such as the American Legion, Lions and Optimist clubs — receive a cut of the proceeds. It typically amounts to about $2,000 or more for each group.

Although the event was canceled in a virtual meeting last month, Frolic organizers are going to try to pay the service organizations a stipend out of the Frolic’s contingency fund, said Amy Zarlenga Mertz, committee chair. A meeting next month will determine how much to disperse.

“So many of these organizations give money to critical needs in our community, and we want to make sure they keep supporting those,” Zarlenga Mertz said. “We have never not had a Frolic. Nobody ever envisioned this would happen.”

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