This year’s Crystal Frolics was supposed to be a new and revitalized festival, with more free entertainment and updated activities set in a renovated park in the Hennepin County suburb.

Instead, Lynn Haney called it off in late April. “It was probably the hardest decision the committee ever made,” said Haney, president of the festival committee. “I cried.”

Organizers of local summer festivals have made a lot of tough calls this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of festivals were canceled for public health reasons, choosing instead to focus on next year. A handful of others, including White Bear Lake Manitou Days and Leprechaun Days in Rosemount, are planning to hold scaled-back August or September events if statewide regulations allow.

Though most festival activities are held outside, many organizers said that throngs of people squeezed together to watch parades, car shows or concerts just isn’t safe this year. Some added that asking businesses for sponsorship dollars didn’t seem right when many are struggling.

The pandemic has hit the festival business “really, extremely hard,” said Steve Madson, president of the Minnesota Festivals and Events Association. “People understand, certainly, but they’re disappointed.”

It means they won’t get to hobnob with the mayor, connect with high school classmates or enjoy street entertainment. Community groups like the Lions Clubs will be out thousands of dollars, since they set up beer tents and sell concessions as fundraisers.

“There’s so many people affected,” said Angie Sedesky, coordinator of Andover Family Fun Fest, which would have marked its 25th anniversary this year. “It’s really quite sad.”

‘Unprecedented situation’

From Stillwater’s Lumberjack Days to New Brighton Stockyard Days, annual summer gatherings offer a sense of place and a nod to their cities’ often-forgotten pasts.

Patrick Whelan, president of the nonprofit that runs Stockyard Days, said older residents will miss the event’s traditional activities. The festival helps residents express pride in their city, he said, even if it doesn’t have the “gloss” of larger suburbs.

“Many of them have become a tradition,” said Lisa Qian, an extension educator with the University of Minnesota Tourism Center. “They make the summer season memorable.”

Many festivals are run as nonprofits and rely on volunteers for planning. Sponsors, usually local businesses, often fund much of them. The city may pitch in money or other resources, such as police and city staffers.

Parades, live bands, beer tents, car shows and sports tournaments are typical attractions. But festivals often add their own unique spin: Stillwater has a log rolling competition, for instance, and West St. Paul hosts a street dance.

The question of whether festivals could happen this year emerged this spring with the outbreak, organizers said. Public health concerns were top of mind, but there were other challenges.

In Crystal, Haney couldn’t find sponsors for the late July event. Local businesses were strapped, and groups like the VFW couldn’t afford to donate, either. “That income just went bye-bye,” she said.

Organizers of Celebrate West St. Paul Days faced the question of what to do about festival royalty, who are missing out on parades and other activities this summer. They decided that this year’s royalty won’t have to give up their titles until 2021.

“You have to take a year off and accept that this is an unprecedented situation,” said Josh Ernst, brand manager for Lumberjack Days, which often sees 20,000 to 30,000 attendees over the third weekend in July. Ernst said canceling the event affected sponsors, entertainers and vendors, who “may have a really tough year” after losing so much business.

Bucking the trend

A few cities are bucking the cancellation trend and planning smaller events, though they know they might eventually be axed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“I just want to give hope to our community that we’re going to try to do something,” said Steve Ball, president of the Rosemount Leprechaun Days committee. He plans to merge a smaller Leprechaun Days with a city-organized food truck event on Sept. 19.

In White Bear Lake, Manitou Days will be pared down from dozens of activities to 13 events to be held Aug. 1 through Aug. 24, said chairwoman Lisa Beecroft.

“It never occurred to us” to totally cancel the event, she said, which usually takes place in late June.

A 5K race will now be virtual, she said, and people will have to spread out while they’re watching movies in the park.

The tagline this year? “It will be different,” Beecroft said.

Paul Kaus, vice president of the Lakeville Pan-O-Prog festival board, thought it was important to try to pull off a more modest, rescheduled Pan-O-Prog (short for Panorama of Progress).

Instead of kicking off on July 4, organizers are thinking about holding a small celebration for three days in late September, he said. Some favorite events are still possible — the “cruise night” car show can be watched from residents’ front yards, he said, and a limited number of people can enjoy socially distanced beer, brats and bingo.

The event will ideally bring a “little bit of normal life” to Lakeville residents, Kaus said.

“It’s a lot of work, but think of all the smiles on the faces,” he said.