A broad array of COVID-19-related precautions will be used at MerleFest 2021, which is about one week away (Sept. 16-19) at Wilkes Community College.
Organizers worked closely with state and local health officials to determine and implement these steps, said MerleFest Director Ted Hagaman.
They include requiring that people be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or have tested negative for the virus within 72 hours of entering the festival.
Upon providing proof of meeting one of these requirements at the festival entrance, a person will be given a “well” wristband to wear throughout the event. This is in addition to wristbands provided with tickets.
Hagaman said the proof can be the original or photo copy of a vaccination card or negative test print, but the entire document must be legible. A photo ID also is needed. He said the negative test requirement applies to children of all ages, per state health officials.
He said losing or removing a well wristband will mean having to repeat the process of proving eligibility.
“State and local health officials and the CDC highly recommend this step and the live music industry is now requiring this to make large gatherings of people as safe as possible,” said Hagaman.
He said testing will be available onsite, but with limited capacity. “We strongly recommend that everyone needing a test do so before getting to the festival,” he added.
“We are scheduling testing at three sites on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (Sept. 13-15) of festival week for anyone in the immediate Wilkes area to get a test at no charge with hopes that a large segment can be tested and receive their well wristband before out of town fans arrive.”
Testing sites will be set up at the main box office plaza, beside the WCC Culinary building on Beacon Hill and in the parking lot of Herring Hall off Oakwoods Road. All three locations will be open from noon to 7 p.m. each of the three days. Optum is providing this testing, which will be rapid tests.
“If you choose to wait (to get tested) until you arrive at the festival, you might find yourself waiting in a long line instead of inside the festival enjoying the music. Your action prior to arriving will make a huge difference in the speed in which we get you into the festival.”
Hagaman said that as required by state health officials, tests must be provided by licensed medical providers and home rapid test results won’t be accepted.
He said social distancing isn’t required, “but logic tells us that we need to be sensitive in crowds and keep adequate space between you and other festival attendees.”
To help reduce congestion in the box office area, the following will open/start at 1:30 p.m. on the first day of the festival and at 9:30 a.m. each of the three subsequent days: gates, box office, shuttle buses, cooler checks and shops/craft vendors. Buses normally run about an hour before the gates open. Hagaman said opening the gates when the buses start will help people enter the festival sooner rather than congregating. Having all the shops open sooner will give people more to do and also reduce congestion.
A new festival exit for pedestrians will be added where the Yadkin River Greenway connects with WCC.
Hagaman cited other steps to reduce crowding and also mask requirements.
Masks must be worn while anywhere indoors at the event, including the Walker Center Stage, Austin Stage, Watson Stage backstage and portable bathroom trailers. In addition, fewer people at a time will be allowed in the MerleFest Museum.
The Mayes Pit Stage won’t be open this year due to the small size of its auditorium’s and difficulty increasing air flow there. The other two indoor stages will have enhanced air flow through their AC systems. There will be fans in several tents to help move air.
To have fewer people backstage, side stage seating for patrons and backstage tours won’t be offered.
Much of the seating under the large food tent will be relocated, resulting in that area being primarily only for preparing and selling food and beverages and for customer lines.
The former R&R Tent will be a place for dining, with appropriately spaced tables and chairs. A Shade Tent will be set up where the Raffle Tent used to be, with seating, lactation room and baby changing station.
“Bring your masks and we’ll all mask up when going inside, said Hagaman. Federal regulations require masks when riding a festival shuttle bus or van, he added.
MerleFest COVID-19 protocol strongly encourages attendees not vaccinated to wear masks at all times at the event and for everyone to wear them in high concentrations of people, even if vaccinated.
Under the protocol, masks are highly recommended for children. For safety of young attendees, the scrap exchange, crafts, large sandbox, do-it-yourself bubbles, arcade style games and instrument petting zoo were deleted from the Little Picker’s area this year. The annual Acoustic Kids Showcase won’t be held. The Little Pickers Stage will still offer programming for children.
School Day, when admission is free for students in certain grade levels, won’t be offered this year.
Inventory in the MerleFest Mall will be limited to items from this year’s performing artists, Doc and Merle Watson items and other select offerings. Masks are recommended for all in this area.
All heritage crafts booths will be in tents that allow vendors to face outside.
Hagaman encouraged continually washing or sanitizing hands to avoid spreading disease. Over 100 hand wash and sanitizing stations are being added throughout the festival grounds. He said WCC custodial staff and festival cleaning teams will clean and sanitize high touch areas throughout the event, as well as dispose of trash.
All festival volunteers, staff, food workers and shuttle bus drivers will be required to complete a health attestation prior to starting a work shift each day.
Wilkes Health Department staff will be onsite to monitor health practices. They will also offer free vaccinations to volunteers and staff before the festival and to attendees during the event.
“MerleFest fans have always been respectful of each other and we’re all here to enjoy the music and traditions,” said Hagaman.
“I challenge everyone to do the right thing. This will help us accomplish our goal of having a safe and successful event for everyone involved,” he concluded.