Decisions on Bluesfest, other Ottawa summer events expected in coming weeks

A decision on whether to extend Ottawa’s ban on public gatherings past June 30 — a move that would snuff out any remaining hope for Bluesfest and Canada Day celebrations — is expected in the next few weeks, city staff said Thursday.

In keeping with legislation from the Ontario government banning gatherings of more than five people to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the City of Ottawa announced last week it would ban public events until at least the end of June.

That meant a swift end to any spring festivals, as they would be unable to obtain necessary event permits from the city.

Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s general manager of emergency and protective services, told Global News in a statement Thursday that the city is likely going to review its timelines for the public event ban in the next few weeks, which could provide clarity on the remainder of the summer festival season.

One of Ottawa’s most anticipated summer events, RBC Bluesfest, is currently scheduled for July 9-19 with a lineup that includes Alanis Morissette, Blink-182 and Rage Against the Machine.

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Bluesfest said in a recent update that it anticipates making the final call on whether or not it can go forward with this year’s event by the first week of May. Organizers said in a statement that full refunds would be available should the event be cancelled or postponed.

Mayor Jim Watson has expressed his doubts in the past week that Canada Day celebrations — already pushed off Parliament Hill because of ongoing renovation work taking place on Centre Block — will be held at all given the risks to public health.

Officials in Ottawa’s tourism sector say the months ahead are critical to the industry’s overall performance.

Visitors attending festivals in Ottawa spend roughly $122.5 million annually during their trips, according to Michael Crockatt, CEO of Ottawa Tourism, the local agency that helps to promote the nation’s capital as a destination for tourists as well as meetings and conventions.

Crockatt cites a study conducted with the Ottawa Festival Network last year that polled 37 local events including Bluesfest, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival and the Canadian Tulip Festival.

April’s annual Tulip Festival — forced into online-only programming this year because of the pandemic — usually marks the kickoff to Ottawa’s summer festival season, Crockatt says.

The run of events starting in April and peaking in July with Canada Day and Bluesfest account for the bulk of annual visitor spending, he notes, with July acting as the largest standalone month from an economic point of view.

“This is going to be a year that is remembered for a long time for the hugely negative impact on the industry,” Crockatt says. “And there may be some businesses and events that don’t survive this.”

While it’s always tough to have to cancel an event, Crockatt says at this juncture it’s the uncertainty of knowing whether the show can go on at all that’s top of event organizers’ concerns. At least with an official extension to the ban in place, festivals can start reaching out to patrons to communicate the circumstances and options for ticket holders.

“Certainty, one way or the other, of what the rules of the game are going to be will be helpful for them,” Crockatt says.

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