OCEAN CITY — Sunfest 2020 remains a distinct possibility, but if the event is held this year, it will likely look and feel a lot different than it has for the last four decades.
With Sunfest, scheduled for the first weekend in October this year, still about two months away, Ocean City officials are facing a critical decision on whether to move forward with the town’s signature fall special event. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, many of the town’s special events this summer have already been canceled or significantly altered.
Just last week, the Bike Week events scheduled roughly around the same time were postponed. On Monday, Special Events Director Frank Miller outlined some of the challenges facing Sunfest this fall and presented proposed alterations to the event if it goes off as planned.
“We’ve come to realize the ability to execute this event is a pretty major unknown day to day until the gates open,” he said. “Even though you may choose that we can move forward with this event, we’re always subject to possible change.”
Miller said despite the event being two months out, the town is nearing a critical crossroads on the decision to host Sunfest this year.
“We need to start setting up contracts this week,” he said. “We’re close to 30 days out for the set-up and they need some answers.”
Miller then presented the proposed changes to Sunfest this year, including more tents for vendors, but smaller and more spread out in the event’s footprint at the Inlet lot. Perhaps the biggest change this year is there will no major headline performers and no entertainment pavilion with ticketed concerts, according to the revised plan. Concerts and other large gatherings are still prohibited under the current stage of the governor’s recovery plan.
“The entertainment tent has the option to put the sides up, but in our conversations with the health officer, she requested we didn’t utilize that space, so the headline concerts are out for 2020,” said Miller. “It’s similar to the interpretation handed down by the Attorney General on the air show and the crowd aspects of performances.”
Traditionally, there are two large tents for the arts and craft vendors, one large tent for the food vendors and the entertainment pavilion for the ticketed headline concerts. This year, if Sunfest is held as planned, there will four smaller tents for vendors spread out over a larger footprint at the Inlet lot and one food tent. However, Miller said the county health officer is recommending not seating in the food tent.
“The health officer recommends removing the larger tent and having smaller tents with the vendors further apart,” he said. “She recommends no seating whatsoever in the food tent and she wants the sides completely open on the food tent.”
The revised plan calls for eliminating the large entertainment pavilion. Instead, an open-air stage facing the ocean is recommended that could host smaller, local performers.
“The headliners can’t perform, but local artists want to perform,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to have to look at as we have continued conversations with the health officer.”
Miller said the decision on Sunfest was a difficult one that will likely be met with consternation regardless of the final outcome.
“Public opinion and the mainstream media are coming down hard on large events,” he said. “We’re going to be subject to a lot of scrutiny. You all know whatever you decide, you’re going to get negative feedback.”
Councilman Mark Paddack urged his colleagues to move forward with Sunfest with the appropriate changes in the event footprint and strict adherence to the governor’s directives on distancing and the wearing of masks, for example.
“We are Sunfest and we are Ocean City,” he said. “It is my opinion we need to move forward with Sunfest with the proper distancing and wearing masks and public education. People should be able to decide to go or not to go.”
Miller said the challenges regarding the decision are shared by the vendors.
“Every company is looking for a decision,” he said. “They are all under immense hardships because of COVID. We do have COVID-related language written into the contracts and there is a risk they are assuming as well.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said there were risks in moving forward with Sunfest as planned, but it might be a risk worth taking.
“We have a couple of months, but we have to make a decision and start lining up vendors as well,” he said. “It’s a bit of a gamble. We’re not going to sign contracts with vendors and then keep their money if the event doesn’t go off as planned. We all want to make it happen. The layout makes sense and it gets people outside. People are looking forward to this.”
Miller explained the most significant expense for the town is the tent rental along with the set-up and tear down, which he estimated at around $104,000. He said overall the town’s expense for hosting the event is around $150,000. Council Secretary Mary Knight said given the unknowns, maybe the tent rental expense could be negotiated down somewhat.
“We’re in the last year of our contract with the tent vendor,” she said. “What if you went back to them and asked for a discount in this uncertain year in exchange for adding another year on the contract?”
After considerable debate, the council directed Miller to pitch Knight’s idea about the tent contract to the vendor. The council also instructed to Miller to poll the vendors on the list and gage their interest in returning this year. Miller will then come back to the Mayor and Council during next week’s work session to give the elected officials more information on which to base their decision.
Councilman Dennis Dare said throughout COVID, decisions on event such as Sunfest have been a moving target.
“For the air show, the goal post just moved again today,” he said. “We don’t know what the situation will be in two months. Hopefully, it will be better. It’s a big roll of the dice for everybody involved this far out.”
Dare also pointed out over the history of Sunfest, there has been a waiting list of potential vendors when the leased spots are all taken. He said that could affect the decisions of some vendors on whether to come this year or not.
“Some vendors are concerned their typical clientele won’t be coming this year,” he said. “Many will choose to stay home. If they do sign up, their revenue will likely be down. If they don’t sign up, they might lose their spots in subsequent years.”