COMMENTARY: Event planning in the COVID-19 universe

by Sep 3, 2021OPINIONS



One Feather Editor


I would like to comment on our recent survey question about conducting public events during the resurgence of the coronavirus. There are mixed emotions in our community about the cancellation of a full-blown Cherokee Indian Fair. It is the second year in a row, after decades of fall festivals, that we have had to close one of our most anticipated events.

Members of the Kolanvyi Youth Indian Ball team lets out a yell during the annual Cherokee Indian Fair Parade on Oct. 12, 2019. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Fair was cancelled and tribal officials announced this past week that the 2021 Fair is also cancelled for public safety reasons. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photo)

There is a myth or two to dispel about the Fair. Some think that it was created as a homecoming or gathering time for our people, and not for tourists, which documentation seems to contradict. In the “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook”, written by Barbara Duncan and Brett H. Riggs, the following is said about the creation of the Cherokee Indian Fair, “During the early part of the century, logging and farming provided income and subsistence, but the tribe also turned to tourism as a source of income. The first Cherokee Fall Fair, in 1914, was subsidized by the tribal council specifically to encourage tourism.”

There have been several comments from readers that the Fair was appropriated from the community to make money and was given over as a tourism attraction. Historically, that is simply not the case. Our people, back in the day, created the Cherokee Fall Festival literally to attract outsiders as a way of getting additional income and therefore subsistence.

That is not to say that we, the community, don’t come and gather at the Fair. In addition to being a tourism attraction, the dates of the Fair have been times that our families plan big reunions and certainly many, many of our people attend, especially when, several years back, Tribal Council voted tribal members no longer needed to pay for a ticket to get into the Fair. And since, at the time the decision was made, about half of the attendees to the Fair were tribal members, it caused a significant loss of revenue. And since it had been common practice to provide passes to community members who placed entries in the contests held by the Agricultural Extension office and Qualla Arts & Crafts, entries fell off drastically because it was no longer necessary to submit an entry to get in free to the Fair. Without a doubt, community attendance at the Fair accounts for more than half of the people there.

I doubt that any of our health officials, government leaders, or event coordinators took great pleasure in the announcement that in-person attendance at the Fair could not be. They are community members too and they have families who also enjoy gathering for the Fall Festival. In fact, I imagine many were broken-hearted at the prospect of a second year without the Fair.

The latest variant of COVID-19, called Delta, by all accounts, is the most contagious form to date. Another myth that has spread, kind of like a virus, is that somehow, the vaccine has failed because a lot of people took it, and a few have gotten the virus in spite of vaccination. But, if you think logically and listened carefully, the message from the medical community was not that the vaccines would eliminate the ability to contract the virus. What they said was that it reduced your chances of getting the virus and if you did get the virus, your symptoms would be greatly reduced. It is illogical for anyone to believe that any vaccine could completely eliminate the potential for infection, particularly when we were told that we need 70 percent of our population to vaccinate in order to prevent what is happening now. We, as a community, never hit the target and still haven’t, but we have lived like we did. And the result has been a relapse into mask mandates and closures.

The tourists are an easy target when the COVID-19 numbers start going up. “It’s those dang tourists coming in here and giving everybody COVID.” But again, we need to take a logical approach to how and why our community might be seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. And again, we have been told by our medical community what the likelihood is that COVID-19 is being spread to us by tourists or if it is coming from our own community.

In a July 22, 2020 interview conducted by Chris McCoy and published by the Cherokee One Feather, Dr. Richard Bunio, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority executive clinical director, was asked the following: “There’s been people calling for the border to close and upset about tourists potentially bringing the virus to our people. Am I more likely to get the virus from someone coming into town to visit than I am going to a friend’s BBQ?”

He responded, “So we actually started looking at this because we knew that the community was concerned about tourism. So, there are a couple of different factors here. How likely are you to get near a tourist? Me, not very. I may pass by them in the grocery store, but I am not going to spend a whole lot of time with them. So, I think the risk there is pretty low. But, if I am going to a friend’s BBQ, unless I am wearing my mask and keeping my distance, I think that is actually a higher risk. We looked at all the positive cases that we’ve had and about 25 percent of the cases are related to people in the same household. So, no tourists there. Another 25 percent are related to these gatherings – cookouts, some funerals. And then there is another 50 percent that we call community spread where somebody tests positive – we don’t know where they got it. Could it have been a tourist? Maybe, but I think we have to ask ourselves, aside from the casino, how often do tourists really interact with us less than six feet for more than 15 minutes? So, I think the risk is pretty low and this is where we are; the virus is everywhere. We are probably just as likely to give it to a tourist as they are to give it to us. It depends on where they come from too. People coming from high-risk areas could be a little bit concerning. You know, even when we closed the border, we didn’t stop people in Cherokee from traveling back and forth.  I think the community can take some credit for keeping us in this yellow zone. One person in a big gathering, that is where the risk is.”

What is the big risk of infection at the Fair? Not necessarily the tourists. It is our family and friends. It is the people we would welcome into our comfort zone. For our community, we look at the Cherokee Indian Fair as a big family gathering. It is unique in the events that we produce as a Tribe. Nowhere do we congregate like we do at the Fair. And congregation invites contagion when it comes to COVID-19. As Dr. Bunio said, the likelihood that I am going to invite a tourist, a stranger, to get close to me is very low. But a cherish friend or family member is a whole other story.

I commend EBCI Destination Marketing in making a very difficult and heart-wrenching decision at the advice of our Public Health Service. As they analyze the other events on their schedules, I believe that they will try to balance community desires with health risks and come up with plans that will make the best of a bad situation. It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.