Challenges mounting for 2020 Autumn Leaf Festival

The Autumn Leaf Festival draws thousands of people to Clarion's streets each year, especially during Crafters Day (above) and the main parade (below). But what will COVID-19 limitations mean to those events this year? Will those events be held this year? Organizers say the festival will look different this year.

CLARION - News and information about the COVID-19 emergency changes daily sometimes it seems almost hourly and that is making for challenging times for the 2020 Autumn Leaf Festival.

Tracy Becker, executive director of the Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry, the organizing agency for the ALF, said planning is ongoing but it is likely the festival will look very different this year.

Clarion University has announced while it will honor its sponsorship commitment, it also will cancel most alumni events this year. (Please see accompanying report on this page.)

"We're meeting we're having discussions," said Becker of ALF sponsors and participants.

Becker said ALF is about 55 events spread out over nine days.

The festival gets underway with a car show that can draw hundreds of cars and thousands of spectators. The recently added "Touch a Truck" activity at the mall has grown each year.

Two of the biggest events are the Farmers and Crafters Day on Friday and the main parade the following day directly before the Clarion University homecoming football game.

Crafters Day includes more than 300 visiting vendors and 30 to 40 participating downtown businesses and non-profit organizations' sales booths.

Becker said Crafters Day can attract 300,000 people to the downtown area throughout the day.

The parade can also attract tens of thousands of people and participants.

Clarion County is currently in "green" status under the state's COVID-19 management program, but that status also includes a cap of 250 people at events.

State guidelines could affect many aspects of the events.

For example, will local school districts be willing to send their high school marching bands to the parade if school activities are limited?

Facing pressure from both sides

"I'm torn," said Becker. "On one side, we have the business people who say they need the festival they need the people to come in and visit the town and businesses. They have taken a big hit this year.

"The hotels have taken a big hit. They all need the business the festival brings.

"On the other side, what about everyone's safety?"

Becker said she understands decisions have to be made.

"Everything changes the (Center for Disease Control) has different news and guidelines every day," said Becker. "The information in the media is different every day. People tell me not to get my information from the media, but where else are we supposed to get it?"

Becker said of the 55 events during Autumn Leaf Festival about 15 to 16 are organized and conducted by the chamber.

The others are organized and operated by private businesses, churches, clubs and other groups.

Becker said ALF is a major fundraiser for some of them and those organizations and groups need to know how things are going to proceed.

"I wish I had a crystal ball," said Becker. "But I don't. Maybe we won't have 55 events. Maybe we'll have 25 or maybe we'll have 15.

"Maybe (ALF) can be different this year."

Becker said the major decisions must be made by the end of August.

"We're already behind," said Becker. "By now everything should be pretty much set and we should be making the final tweaks. We should be selling parade tickets."

Lessons from ‘I Love Clarion'

Becker said the chamber and ALF committee members learned some valuable lessons from the July 3 "I Love Clarion" celebration.

The Independence Day celebration was moved this year from Clarion University Memorial Stadium to the Clarion Mall to allow for social distancing.

Becker said people attending at the event voluntarily and cooperatively followed social distancing guidelines and enjoyed the evening.

Becker said those attending the event stayed in small family groups and were spread out at the mall and surrounding areas.

Becker believes the success of "I Love Clarion" indicates outdoor events during a scaled-down ALF could be successful as well.

But indoor events could experience setbacks.

Becker said limits on people in the buildings and required sanitation and cleaning requirements could make indoor events too hard to conduct.

Input welcome

"The Autumn Leaf Festival isn't my festival," said Becker. "It's not the chamber's festival. Autumn Leaf Festival belongs to all of us. We're all in this together and we all have to be in the fight."

To that end, Becker said she and ALF organizers welcome ideas and feedback from the community concerning moving ahead with the festival and their safety and health concerns.

Beyond COVID-19, ALF planning also involves local and state police, emergency medical personnel and even the Department of Homeland Security.

"We want to hear from everyone who might be involved or affected," said Becker.

The Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry can be reached through its Facebook page or by telephone at 814-226-9161.

The possibility of cancelation

Becker acknowledged the 2020 Autumn Leaf Festival could be a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Will it be a nine-day festival? Will it be a seven-day festival? I don't know," said Becker. "It has to be a safe environment for everyone."

Becker concluded, "Maybe, I hope not, but maybe, this is the year we have to put it all on hold and come back next year."