It’s a tale of two cities — or at least how Christmas light festivals in two southern Alberta cities are coping with COVID-19.
Volunteers setup thousands of lights Sunday in preparation for Airdrie’s Festival of Lights. But hosting Western Canada’s biggest outdoor light festival during a pandemic is an even bigger task than usual.
“It has been an incredible amount of work. We are definitely tired,” said Airdrie Festival of Lights coordinator Michelle Pirzek on Sunday.
Pirzek said the board of the Festival of Lights decided to go all out with the light display this year.
There will be the same number of lights and events despite the pandemic and a 50 per cent drop in sponsorship revenue.
“The world is different this year and we need a bit of normalcy. We know that revenues are down [and] families are really struggling,” Pirzek said. “We don’t charge admission for people to come and we don’t charge for parking. Our hot chocolates are still $2 and our train rides are still $2 even 25 years later.”
The event will also cost around $10,000 more to host this year because of COVID-related expenses. Plexiglass shields were installed for the train rides and sanitation stations are being set up.
“We are in an outdoor space and we really need to work hard to encourage the physical distancing. We have certain areas within the park that are going to be mandatory masks,” Pirzek said.
Pirzek said anywhere between 300 and 500 people are normally at the event on a weekday. She said they won’t be limiting crowds but are advising people to come on weekdays when it’s not as busy.
It’s a different story at the Lion’s Festival of Lights in northwest Calgary. The board made the tough decision in July to reduce the light display to a fraction of its usual size.
This year only the light standards on 14th Street and a few poles in the park will be be decorated with lights.
“I feel good that we are able to put something up,” Lions Festival of Lights chairperson Otto Silzer said.
On a normal year the display at Confederation Park is lit up with around 650,000 lightbulbs.
Silzer said his biggest worry was crowd control — or the lack of it.
“When the kids are here on a nightly basis, when the display is on and school is out there’s probably 200-plus kids out here tobogganing on the hill, and with skiers out here and people wandering around, there’s just too many people,” she said.
“We have no way to control the numbers of people. The ground displays are what the children gravitate to and they want to touch and they want to feel it, and we could not risk the chance of being a COVID spreader.”
Pirzek said Alberta Health Services is on board with the plan of the Airdrie Festival of Lights which will be celebrating its 25th season.
She said the free event is even more important this year.
“It’s life-changing when you can see a family connect in a way that they can afford. It’s a tough life for some people and so it’s important to us that we maintain that budget friendly thing for people to do,” Pirzek said.
Both festivals have cancelled their opening day celebrations.
Lions Festival of Lights starts on Nov. 28, while the Airdrie Festival of Lights begins on Dec. 1.
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