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2020 Balloon Fiesta up in the air

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta attracts thousands of people from around the country and the world. COVID-19 safety precautions would prevent crowds like this one in 2018 from gathering this year. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It used to be the only things certain in life were death, taxes and staging the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

This year, however, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic reverberate through communities, the fiesta is far from certain.

“We are looking at anything from a regular balloon fiesta to a balloon fiesta lite,” to the possible cancellation of this year’s event, Paul Smith, executive director of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta told the Journal in an interview.

The AIBF is the nonprofit that raises funds, organizes and puts on the fiesta, which is held at city-owned and -maintained Balloon Fiesta Park. This year, it is scheduled to occur from Oct. 3 through Oct. 11.

“We don’t even know if it would be at Balloon Fiesta Park because we don’t know yet if the mayor will allow the park to open,” Smith said. “It could be something like Albuquerque Aloft, where balloonists launch from different locations around town, though I can’t imagine how that would work.”

Different scenarios

During a teleconferenced meeting with Journal editors and reporters last Friday, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller acknowledged that instead of nine days of events that attract tens of thousands of spectators to the field, “it’s probably going to be a different kind of balloon fiesta.”

Saying that the fiesta basically is a ballooning competition, the mayor said he could envision a safe way of letting pilots compete and follow safe distancing rules. A scenario could also be to have pilots launch from various locations where people could watch from their cars.

“We’ll come up with a couple of different scenarios,” Keller said. “We also need to cost all this out – the Balloon Fiesta obviously has costs on the front end, so we’re going to try to balance that out, too.”

Once it becomes clear what the mayor and the governor will allow, “then we need to see if that fits into our business model,” Smith said. “We can’t just go out and spend lots of money to conduct something without generating some kind of revenue or else we’ll be out of business before our 50th anniversary,” expected to take place in 2021.

Keller said it may be July before any decisions about how to proceed are made.

Having moved into a reopening phase after months of coronavirus turmoil, Keller said city officials now have a chance to start looking further into the future.

In the meantime, Smith and the AIBF board have plenty to consider.

Last year, the Balloon Fiesta reported drawing more than 866,000 spectators.

If fiesta were held this year, but social distancing requirements were in effect, “what would that even look like?” Smith asked.

It would probably be limited to fewer visitors and or fewer balloons.

Though still more than four months away, staging of the 2020 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is not a lock. COVID-19 safety concerns about large gatherings, such as this one in 2018, could cause cancellation of the event. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Thermometers at the gate?

“Would we need to have thermometers at the gate, spread out metal detectors and make sure everyone wears masks? Would we have to spread out concessions and put marks on the ground to space out where people stand in line?”

Food vendors, instead of preparing food to order, might have to serve grab-and-go options, and if there were merchandise tents, they might face the same type of social distancing and capacity limitations that are now in effect for retail stores, Smith said.

And then there are questions about “high-touch” surfaces and how often they would need to be sanitized.

Smith noted that with well over 200 balloons in the Albuquerque area, instead of a full-blown fiesta, local balloonists could put together some kind of rally in October.

Currently, balloonists come from all corners of the world to participate.

State Fair questions, too

The New Mexico State Fair, the second-largest event in the state in terms of attendance behind Balloon Fiesta, has organizers asking some of the same questions.

“We’re planning as if it’s still going to happen because this thing is just too big of a machine to turn the switch off,” said Dan Mourning, general manager of Expo New Mexico.

“We also realize it’s something that might not happen, so we’re planning accordingly. We’re not just going to sit around, and turn off the lights and close the window shades, and say, ‘OK, we’ll see you next year,’ ” he said. “We’ll figure something out that will fit within the guidelines of whatever we’re able to do at that time.”

Tom Garrity, an official spokesman for Balloon Fiesta, was upbeat.

“I’m encouraged because other major (national) events are rescheduling for the late-September, early-October time frame, like the Boston Marathon, the Kentucky Derby and Coachella,” he said.

Smith was also upbeat, though tempering it with a dose of reality.

“Currently, our plan is to hold Balloon Fiesta like we always do, but I don’t want to be naïve,” he said. “There are a whole lot of factors and any one of them could change some aspect of it, if not all of it.”

Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.

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