Should we or shouldn't we? Council toys with idea, decides not to allow blues fest on island

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Todd Yeomans (right), president of the Prairie Dog Blues Society, speaks backstage with the father of singer Sarah Grace, from The Voice, at the 2019 Prairie Dog Blues Festival. The status of the 23rd annual event was stifled during Tuesday’s council meeting. (Courier Press file photo)

By Correne Martin

 

On one hand, you have a small business owner and president of a major tourism draw to the community. On the other hand, you have a city council that has a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all of its citizens. Amidst it all, you have the coronavirus and uncertainty, looming over the local economy and potential events like the Prairie Dog Blues Festival that bring summer entertainment and important tourism dollars to the city of Prairie du Chien. 

The Prairie du Chien Common Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to deny Todd Yeomans and the Prairie Dog Blues Society the chance to host the annual blues festival in the city-owned St. Feriole Island park July 24-25. Aldermen Nate Gilberts, Kelssi Copus, Misty Lemon-Rogers, Todd Myers and Karen Solomon voted against a motion to allow the two-day festival on the island for those dates, while Jaaren Riebe, Nate Bremmer and Russ Wittrig voted in favor. 

This event is not unique to the scene of mass gathering cancellations everywhere. It does however stand out as one with organizers willing to balk the trend and create difficult conversations about how small communities are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, if the festival happens in 2020, which Yeomans wasn’t sure of after Tuesday’s decision, it would need to be at a later date and likely involve great stipulations. The fest founder noted, before a vote was even taken at the meeting, that he hadn’t made a final decision yet whether to have the event or not this year, but simply wanted the opportunity for his organization to make that determination. He said he was open to pushing back the dates too, and had yet to open ticket sales.

“We set our dates last fall. I had been hearing we couldn’t hold [the fest] or we would have restrictions,” he said. “We spend a lot of money on advertising—thousands—and thankfully we hadn’t done a lot of that yet, otherwise, that would’ve been bad. No one ever came to me. We’re here because we just need a direction.”

Prior to the meeting, Yeomans researched a significant list of regional events on public property that are the same size as the blues fest and still going forward despite COVID-19. He said he talked to a man from Madison who has written books on outdoor air quality, and that man was planning to attend the blues fest with no concern. He also spoke with a Prairie du Chien hotel that was half full already for the July 24-25 weekend. 

Alderwoman Copus wondered whether, with all the other activities of this caliber canceling, this festival would attract more people seeking something to do. 

Yeomans thought there may be some of that, but stated he’d be doing well if 75 percent of his usual patrons came this year. The 12-act, two-stage blues fest typically brings an average of 5,000 people to the community over the two days. He also trusted, since it’s a ticketed niche event, and not free, that would limit the numbers from ballooning. 

Alderman Myers reminded the council that an influx of thousands of community visitors have always and continue to come to Prairie’s campgrounds each weekend. 

“Nobody wants to do anything unsafe, but I’m just trying to help our small businesses here by bringing people to town. We tend to be a good weekend for [the businesses] and I feel like I may be failing my own business community if I don’t try to have something,” stated Yeomans, part owner of local businesses, Sports World and Dyesport. 

Alderman Riebe voiced his concern about the businesses as well. He said he heard 40 small businesses on State Street in Madison aren’t reopening because of the coronavirus. 

“The way I look at it, if you don’t want to get in a car accident, don’t get in the car,” he remarked. Riebe was the one who eventually made a motion to allow the festival in late July. Gilberts seconded the motion. 

Yeomans added, “We’re getting these tourists anyway. People are going to show up here irregardless. We have so much space on the island where people can spread out.” 

One concern Alderman Gilberts had was the number of fest-goers he’s seen pack the beer tent in recent years to listen to the small stage bands there. 

“I don’t think you’re gonna see that this year,” Yeomans responded. He shared that the demographic the blues festival welcomes to Prairie du Chien is a middle aged and “more mature” generation who, he felt, would be more socially distant and careful about their event experience. Usually, the music-loving crowd sits in bag chairs scattered across one block on the island.

“We could expand our fence line to have even more space,” he suggested. “We would do everything we need to do to keep people safe.”

Crawford County Health Officer Cindy Riniker was asked to give her opinion on the matter Tuesday. She said she respects Yeomans for what he’s trying to do, but shared three “red flags” about moving forward with the fest as is. 

First, she said the county will probably soon upgrade to phase three of its tiered reopening guidelines, which would recommend gatherings be kept to 250 people or less. “But that’s the maximum until a vaccine comes out, hopefully by next spring,” she stated. 

Second, Riniker explained that, although Yeomans felt his older crowd would be more responsible, “those are the people we don’t want coming out” because they are at a higher risk for COVID-19. 

Third, she said, despite people “coming from Timbuktu to Prairie, we still have that recommendation, we don’t want people coming into our county, going out of our county, etc.”

“Ultimately, it’s your decision,” Riniker told the council, “but if you do, everybody’s going to be calling Prairie du Chien because other counties aren’t allowing this.”

With the motion to move forward on the table, and the vote about to take place, City Attorney Lara Czajkowski Higgins asked to speak, and her words seemed to climatically change the direction of the council’s decision. 

“From a liability perspective, I think it would be a big mistake,” she commented. “We have guidance from the state that we uphold a standard of care. We have said our county health officer is our health officer. We have a series of other similar type events in our locale canceling. I’m fearful anybody who contracted [the virus] could come back and say that the city council and the city of Prairie du Chien didn’t follow the standard of care.”

As a previous blues fest attendee who would, under normal circumstances, be likely to attend again this year, she further pointed out her legal opinion and advised the council of its role to “protect the public safety for all citizens of the community.”

“Everywhere we look, people are choosing to protect people’s health,” she declared. “If there’s an outbreak that can be tracked back to the blues fest, the city is at great risk of grave consequences.”

With that, the vote occurred, disallowing use of city property for the festival at its current dates—leaving Yeomans and the blues society to determine what to do next, if anything in 2020.

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