Organizers in Alaska face tough choices over bringing back summer events

A bagpipe band performs at the 2019 Alaska Scottish Highland Games in Palmer. (Photo courtesy Alaskan Scottish Club)

Every June, the Alaska Scottish Highland Games celebrate Scottish culture at the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer with events like bagpiping, traditional foods and Scottish athletic competitions. Participants race in kilts and compete in the caber toss, where athletes flip wooden poles the size of trees.

In 2020, the games took a break because of the pandemic. But this summer, they’re back.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we think we can pull it off,” said Jeni McDaniel, Executive Director of the Alaskan Scottish Club, which puts on the Highland games. “We are at the State Fairgrounds, and we have a lot of room to grow there. So that works towards our advantage of being able to mitigate things by spreading things out.”

Having space to socially distance makes it possible to keep the games largely as they were.

On the other hand, summer mainstay events including Moose’s Tooth concerts, Anchorage’s Pride Parade and July 4 celebrations have been taken off the books. The Alaska State Fair is scheduled to go ahead at the end of August, but early summer events will be sparse for Alaska.

According to Anchorage Recreation Superintendent Brad Cooke, who handles permitting for local outdoor events and helps create mitigation plans, organizers are frequently capable of meeting safety recommendations. But doing so often makes the event financially impossible or too different, Cookie said.

“There’s nothing that’s truly safe in anything we do,” he said. “But we try and get the risk mitigated enough so that it’s comfortable enough that it’s not an increased risk for folks. Most events have canceled themselves.”

Space is the key factor. The Highland Games have made some compromises: Vendors are being asked to put on masks and use contactless payment. Booths will be spread further apart, and the games will be held over two days instead of one to cut down on crowds. But otherwise, the massive State Fairgrounds will allow this year’s games to closely resemble those of years past — kilts and all.

By contrast, the Three Barons Renaissance Fair’s board of directors made the tough decision to cancel their regular fair in favor of a smaller event later this summer.

The fair has been held every June on an 8-acre lot in East Anchorage. Over two weekends, more than 400 volunteer actors put on period costumes and form the medieval village of Hillshire. They organize activities like ax-throwing and plays where the audience can throw tomatoes at the actors. The tight quarters made it hard to comply with official recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have 12,000 people over four weekends come visit with a cast of 400,” said Three Barons Vice President Kevin McClear, who manages the site. “Our patrons will be walking down the main street of Hillshire with vendors on both sides, in close proximity, and there’ll be actors who will be right there interacting with them on a very close level, on an intimate level.”

The fair is designed to be a densely populated space where fairgoers can mill around and have run-ins with actors in corsets and armor. The safety plan would have called for one-way traffic through the whole fair, with actors stuck in place.

“There wouldn’t be any spontaneous interaction with cast,” McClear said. “The audience and cast would all be going in the same direction. You wouldn’t run across anything. You wouldn’t look up and see a Baron coming at you from the other direction.”

McClear said the fair board wasn’t upset with CDC guidelines: They understood the event as normal wouldn’t be safe, and didn’t want to put their volunteer staff in an uncomfortable position.

But in Palmer, the Highland Games will move forward in a way that feels very familiar.

“Obviously there’s no way to prevent all risks, but we’re mitigating the risk,” McDaniel said. “We’re doing what we can. We think our community is ready and excited about getting back together, and we really want to help move that forward.”

The challenge that organizers are dealing with is not just about whether the event is safe. It’s about whether the events can be what they were before. They’re chasing something that’s in short supply these days: normality.

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