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“Freedom Festival” to take the place of the Gulf coast National Shrimp Fest

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COVID-19 continues to take its toll across Alabama. Health care providers report the number of hospitalizations appears to be easing. If true, that’s the good news. The bad news along the Alabama Gulf coast is that it’s too late to save the National Shrimp Festival. Organizers of the Gulf Shores event called it off for the second year in a row. The decision left some area residents feeling it was time for a celebration anyway.

The last time the Shrimp Festival was held in Gulf Shores was 2019. The event drew about 300,000 people for a long weekend of music, art and, of course, seafood. Last year, the festival was called off during the pandemic. Last month, the Gulf Coast Business Chamber announced that the threat was still too high to hold an event that brings that many people into close contact. Some residents, however, felt that wasn’t the last word on the matter. Orange Beach announced that they will hold an event dubbed the “Freedom Festival” this Saturday. That day wasn’t picked by chance.

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Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism and Visitors Bureau

“We’re going to have a one-day event on Saturday of the Shrimp Festival,” said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach. “The vendors are extremely appreciative that we’re trying to do something for them and we’re hoping to have 80 or so, maybe more. Volunteers are showing up. We just have a tremendously strong to our continuing to have it.”

Kennon said the idea is popular with a lot of residents and artists. He’s not sure how many to expect, but his rough guess is 12,000 to 20,000 for the one day event. It might help that Brooks and Dunn are performing that night at the same location, The Wharf in Orange Beach.

“The majority are the ones that were going to be at the Shrimp Festival,” Kennon said. “With such late notice, they really had nowhere to go. So, they were happy with the opportunity of at least a one-day event. It seems like a strong community effort.”

While COVID-19 has not gone way, Kennon said it’s time to start moving forward and try to get back to normal.

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Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Visitors Bureau

“I want normalcy and we can’t keep canceling events every time there’s variant or a scare or a surge,” Kennon said. “We just can’t do it. This is never going to go away. It’s with us for life. We have to live with it.”

“It’s not like this was something that we took lightly at all,” said Clayton Wallace, the communications director for the National Shrimp Festival.

“It was with a very heavy heart that we had to, that we felt we had to cancel it but when we have so many of our volunteers,” Wallace said. “People don’t realize quite how many of our volunteers. We use somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 volunteers and a good number of these volunteers are 65 and over, they are people that because they’re retirees, they’re more likely to have some co-morbidities. They’re likely to be at a higher risk and quite frankly, we just felt highly uncomfortable asking people like that to come down and volunteer.”

Wallace said cancelling the Shrimp Festival wasn’t an easy decision and organizers waited until they were sure it would not be safe.

“We looked at COVID numbers and while we were fairly certain that there was going to be a reduction in numbers by the time Shrimp Fest rolled around, we were still concerned that the numbers were so high, that Baldwin County has remained a red county as transmission numbers go and after consulting with our EMS crews, after consulting with our local hospitals, we just came. They were concerned. They were concerned about the effects of having, the effects on their ability to handle things if we had the Shrimp Festival. And it was only after consulting with them that we finally had to make the decision to cancel it,” Wallace said.

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The Shrimp Festival usually brings in tens of thousands of visitors to a small area along the Gulf Shores public beach boardwalk. Wallace said they can’t social distance in those circumstances.

“We looked at possibly trying to implement COVID protocols, but we’re not a ticketed event, so it’s not like we can put a number limit because anybody walking down the street can walk into the festival and that created its own set of headaches. We wanted to have it. We really, really wanted to have it,” Wallace said.

Having an event might not be safe in an area with high risks of infection. Dr. Karen Landers is an area health officer with the state health department. She said that covers all of Alabama, including Baldwin County.

“You’re really looking at probably about 13 percent overall percent positivity in the community and that’s still a high rate and the way we define a high rate of community transmission is you’ve really got well over 100 cases or so per 100,000, so I think you’re really looking at, again, some pretty significant numbers right now in Baldwin County,” Landers said. “All that being said, it does concern me.”

She said outdoor events can still be a threat when people are crowded together.

“Some of these things that I’ve seen people go to lately just in pictures, people don’t even have 12 inches between them and, if that’s the case, then masks certainly need to be added because you don’t have the distance there,” Landers said. “You’ve got even though with humidity and heat and wind currents, you’ve still got the risk of transmission. Now, it’s still less outside, but again, I’m still concerned about people being closely associated with one another in a community of high transmission, which is pretty much the whole state of Alabama.”

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said people should take precautions, but at some point, they have to get on with their lives.

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“The virus is real,” Kennon said. “The virus is deadly for a certain segment of the population and that segment of the population needs to protect themselves and we need to try to help them, but otherwise, the rest of us have got to make a living. The rest of us have got to have normal lives. We’ve got to raise our children in a normal environment and, for me, I have no intention of rolling over and canceling anything if I can help it.”

For Wallace, it’s still too soon to get out.

“We’d love to have it, but we just felt like there was no way that we could do it and do it in a manner that was safe for both patrons and volunteers,” he said.