Delaware festivals hang in the balance of coronavirus crisis

The rock band Awolnation performs at last year’s Firefly Music Festival. This year’s ninth annual Firefly was canceled last week due to concerns over the coronavirus crisis. (Delaware State News file photo)

As the weather turns warmer and the days get longer, under any other circumstance, we would start looking forward to enjoying the many outdoor festivals the area has to offer.

But these are not any other circumstances, to say the least.

On March 22, Gov. John Carney ordered Delawareans to stay at home whenever possible and closed all non-essential businesses in Delaware to help fight the spread of COVID-19. The orders went into effect on March 24. Additionally, on Wednesday, he banned all gatherings of 10 more people.

The rules will remain in effect until May 15 or until the public health threat is eliminated.

The lasting effects of the coronavirus has already caused the cancellation and/or postponement of a string of spring and summer festivals in Downstate Delaware and has put others in limbo as we head into what would normally be a busy time of year.

Firefly Music Festival

The biggest cancellation came last week with the news that the ninth annual Firefly Music Festival would not occur this year at the Woodlands of Dover on the grounds of Dover International Speedway.

After weeks of speculation, organizers announced March 24 that those who purchased tickets through the official ticket provider, Elevate, will receive a full refund or, if you choose, you may transfer your ticket to Firefly 2021.

This year’s event, which was set for June 18-21, was to feature Billie Eilish, rock group Rage Against the Machine, Halsey, R&B singer Khalid, Blink 182, the Eastern Shore’s own Maggie Rogers, Cage the Elephant, DJ Illenium, rappers Run the Jewels and David Lee Roth.

In a statement, Firefly officials said “At the direction of state and local authorities and federal guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we are saddened to confirm the cancellation of Firefly Music Festival 2020. We take the safety and health of our fans, staff and community seriously and we urge everyone to follow the guidelines and protocols put forth by public health officials.

“We are deeply disappointed by this difficult decision, one that impacts our fans and our incredible team of performers, crew, vendors & our community in Dover, Delaware.

“In these unprecedented times, we send you our love. Thank you for your support and we look forward to welcoming you in the Woodlands in June 2021 where we will dance, sing and celebrate live music together.”

Firefly’s cancellation came on the heels of the South By Southwest festival cancellation in Austin, Texas, followed by the postponing of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California.

Not only did Firefly’s cancellation disappoint the tens of thousands of music fans who were hoping to see Ms. Eilish, arguably the biggest pop star in the world right now, and the reformation of Rage Against the Machine after a long hiatus, it also means a significant hit financially to Dover and the state.

A 2014 study revealed that the four-day Firefly Music Festival contributed more than $68 million to the regional economy and created the equivalent of 579 full-time jobs in that year.

That’s on top of the loss absorbed by the postponement of Dover International Speedway’s May 1-3 NASCAR race weekend, which officials hope to make up at some point.

The loss of Firefly also means a loss of revenue for scores of nonprofit groups who take the opportunity to raise money while on the grounds of the music festival.

One the groups hardest hit is the Code Purple organization, which has been serving the homeless population of Kent County for more than six years. Code Purple is completely funded by community donations.

In partnership with Firefly, volunteers collect leftover camping equipment and other items on each year on the Monday after the festival to distribute to the homeless.

Teams walk the camping area in search of reusable durable camping products to include; sleeping bags, tents, bed rolls, reusable water bottles, lanterns, flashlights, clothing, footwear and nonperishable foods. All items are cleaned and/or reconditioned and distributed to the homeless community via Code Purple based on need.

Items not usable for the homeless are sold at a community yard sale to raise funds to support the work of Code Purple.

Ennio Emmanuel, in his first year as director of Code Purple Kent County, said the loss of Firefly is a big one for his organization.

“It’s going to be greatly missed. We have donors who have stepped up and they were sponsors for our (Firefly) cleanup and now, because of that, they’re still sending donations as sponsors but it’s a big hurt,” he said.

“I’m already working with different grants and trying to see how we’re going to fulfill that need because that’s hundreds of tents, hundreds of sleeping bags, blankets, coolers — all that good stuff that we use is gone.

Mary Delgado, left, hands a bag off to Linda Davis as they were among more than 200 volunteers who participated in the Code Purple Kent County Cleanup in the campgrounds of the Firefly Music Festival last year. With the cancellation of this year’s Firefly, Code Purple will miss out on the donated supplies. (Delaware State News file photo)

“So now we are trying to apply for the Delaware Community Fund, the Longwood Grants – all these different grants that are out there helping out for emergency services. We’re seeing if we can supplement the loss that we’re going to have for Firefly with maybe grant money or donations.

“Only God know why he does things but this year has been a crazy year for Code Purple just with the pandemic, the new leadership (at Code Purple) and now we have Firefly gone. It’s been interesting to find ways to kind of maneuver around all these different things. We also have to be smart and know that this can happen at any time and so I can’t depend on Firefly or depend on anything, we have to be proactive and find solutions in case this ever happens again.”

June Jam

One of those organizations stepping up for Code Purple is June Jam. Although known for their annual concerts that raise money for local groups, Bob Hartley, president of June Jam, said they are already working to help out the Kent County nonprofit.

“We’ve been working with Code Purple to facilitate Porta Potties in downtown Dover and RPG has donated the cleaning of them so the homeless have some place to go. The city still has to weigh in on locations for them,” he said.

“Felicia Baker, who used to own Cowboy Up, provided our first casserole dishes to hand to the homeless. June Jam is right around to help out in the community and we are excited to be working with the new head of Code Purple. We’ve been able to drop off the casserole dishes and ingredients to be distributed to the people Code Purple serves. They are helping the homeless year round now instead of just helping them when the weather gets down below 32 degrees.”

This year’s June Jam is still set for the G&R Campground in Houston on June 13. It is slated to feature Jason Morton and the Chesapeake Sons, Petting Hendrix, Tom Petty tribute band Damn The Torpedoes, Nothin But Trouble, a reunion of the band Hotwire, Tenfold Trouble, Scrapple and more.

Festivalgoers dance to the music of Kategory 5 during last year’s June Jam near Houston. This year’s June Jam is still set for June 13. (Delaware State News file photo)

Although the date is still set for now, Mr. Hartley said they are constantly monitoring an ever-changing situation.

“We want to make sure things are safe. Nobody has canceled us yet. No one has told us ‘You can’t have your event’. We’re looking at it and we think we have access to all of the information out there. We have access to doctors who all they do is study infectious disease. We take the information that the state provides and doctors give us. We want to have the event as safe as possible.”

Mr. Hartley said if this is the first July Jam or August Jam in the event’s 42 years, than so be it. The show will go on even if it’s not during the usual time of year.

“This is our 22nd year working with the campground and we have an excellent relationship with them. We are prepared to move it if we have to. We have spoken to the bands and many of them have nothing on their schedule right now, so we will have it at some point I’m sure,” he said.

Planning meetings are still in full swing, although they are bit different in past years.

“We had our first virtual meeting last week and that went well, even for a technological dinosaur like me,” Mr. Hartley joked.

“We had eight people on the line at once and we have over 100 volunteers ready to go.”

Tickets for both the concert and camping are available on JuneJam.com. Mr. Hartley said both are selling well but he does sense some trepidation right now.

“We aren’t selling at our normal pace as far as tickets and the campsites go. But we are telling them if they ask, we’re not exactly sure when we will be cleared to have the event, but we will have it,” he said.

“People are still looking forward to it if we catch the timing correctly. Hopefully we can get people out again. At G and R, you can have as much turf as you want. Bring food and beer along and have your own little world. We think we’ll be in good shape whenever we can have it.”

Gable events

Gable Music Ventures, based in Wilmington, produces many area music events across the state. Locally, they help put together Smyrna at Night with the city of Smyrna; the female-fronted Ladybug Music Festivals, both in Wilmington and Milford; and Fortify Music Festival at Fort DuPont.

All events are still on.

The one coming up first is Smyrna at Night, a daylong music and townwide block party, also set for June 13.

The event is a bit different than others for Gable as it is the town of Smyrna’s call as to whether to postpone or cancel, said Jeremy Hebbel, co-owner of Gable Music Ventures.

“I’m in pretty regular contact with the town manager (Gary Stulir.) Unlike Ladybug, this not our call. But I’m in touch with the town of Smyrna regularly, pretty much giving them their options, what the ramifications would be of a cancellation at this point and it’s on them to decide,” Mr. Hebbel said.

“If this pandemic lasts longer than what is being projected, I’m sure we will make very attempt to reschedule it before just pulling the project.”

Mr. Hebbel said that unlike Firefly, his events don’t take that long to set up.

“The physical on-site stage build really starts on the day for a lot of these events. We have the luxury that Firefly doesn’t have. Firefly has hundreds of people involved and probably months building out their infrastucture. So that’s a good thing about our events. We can pop them up and run them for the day and then they are gone,” he said.

Cecilia Grace members,Tessa, left, and Cecilia Sugarman perform on the Odd Fellows Stage during a past Smyrna’s at Night. This years’s Smyrna at Night is still on nright now. (Delaware State News file photo)

Artists named so far for Smyrna at Night include New Orleans’ Big Sam’s Funky Nation, The Ladybugs of Soul and local band Mike Hines and The Look.

“We’re looking toward the safety and well-being of our attendees. If people are telling us it’s not safe, obviously that would be really kind of crushing but it’s not a decision we have to make right now. We are in full swing and keeping the staff busy. We’ve been fortunate in not having to lay anybody off. We are working hard to put on a great event and we hope everyone takes this pandemic seriously so we can enjoy an awesome event, Mr. Hebbel said.

The Ladybug Festival is set for July 16 and 17 in Wilmington and Sept. 13 in Milford. The Fortify Music Festival at Fort DuPont in Delaware City is Aug. 8.

That ticketed event features Bruce in the USA paying tribute to Bruce Springsteen; Countdown to Ecstasy playing the music of Steely Dan; and The Insiders paying tribute to Tom Petty, among others.

Tickets can be purchased at FortDuPont.org.

Mr. Hebbel hopes that when he is given a signal that it is indeed safe to hold these events, that people will still want to attend.

“Will people be really nervous to be in crowds? Will they come? We can’t worry about that. The only thing stopping us is local government telling us it’s not safe, which is why it’s so important that everybody do their part to help stop the spread of the virus,” he said.

Other festivals

Other events still on at this point include the African-American Festival at Dover’s Legislative Hall on June 27; Dover Comic Con throughout the downtown area on Aug. 15; and the Wyoming Peach Festival on Aug. 1.

“Our last meeting was canceled due to the recent events,” said Donna Mason, co-chairwoman of the Wyoming Peach Festival in an email on Wednesday.

“We need to get with our committee to make a decision. I talked to the police chief (Wednesday) and he is canceling some of his future events. … I will contact you as soon as we make a decision.”

Aside from Firefly, perhaps the other biggest event canceled is the Dover Days Festival, which was set for May 2.

The event, which brings thousands to the downtown area, is a day filled with a parade, food, games, performances and historical tributes to Dover.

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen is a member of the Dover Days Committee and he said it was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made in the interest of public safety.

“As you may well understand, my heart is broken that we had to cancel one of Dover’s premier and fun events which since 1933 has showcased the history, heritage and beauty of our city,” Mayor Christiansen said. “Having said this, we have the obligation to provide for the safety and well-being of our citizens and visitors not only to this event, but other public gatherings as well.

“We are in full compliance with the orders of the president and our governor and will continue to follow their recommendations until this crisis has passed.”

History, Heritage and Hops, another event scheduled to take place on Loockerman Street in downtown Dover on May 16, was also canceled this week due to concerns with coronavirus.

Fordham and Dominion Brewing’s R2Hop2, set for April 18, has also been postponed for a date to be determined.

Finally, Downtown Milford, Inc. and Milford Parks and Recreation’s 17th annual Bug and Bud Festival, slated for April 25, has been canceled.

All vendors will be issued a full refund. If there are any questions, contact director@downtownmilford.org.

Staff writer Mike Finney contributed to this story.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 1 guidance

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