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Nice weather, 75th anniversary can’t mask challenges for festival

Samuel Crawford shows off an apple peeler and Paige Nichols and Mari Crawford tote apples and slushies they bought at Grandad’s Apples on Sunday. The family from Shelby was among those shopping at the apple stands on Chimney Rock Road on a busy Sunday. Samuel Crawford shows off an apple peeler and Paige Nichols and Mari Crawford tote apples and slushies they bought at Grandad’s Apples on Sunday. The family from Shelby was among those shopping at the apple stands on Chimney Rock Road on a busy Sunday.

With good weather in the forecast and a 75th birthday to celebrate, the North Carolina Apple Festival would ordinarily be riding high when the event opens on Friday morning.

But a series of freezes that slashed the apple crop by 70-80 percent and a surge in coronavirus cases that is testing the region’s health care capacity make this one of the festival’s more challenging years.
The Apple Festival Board of Directors, which called off last year’s festival when the state remained under mass gathering restrictions, decided weeks ago to go forward with this year’s festival. The decision came before the new Delta variant led to a resurgence of Covid cases, filled hospital beds and ICUs and triggered urgent pleas by public health officials statewide to mask up and avoid crowds.
Although organizers have made a few changes, the festival won’t require masks or social distancing and events that in the past have attracted closely packed crowds are still on.
“We’re going to tell vendors to do what they can to protect themselves, their staff and attendees,” David Nicholson said. Apple Festival souvenir booths will give out free masks to those who ask and will also sell logo face masks, and hand sanitation stations and wipes will be set up.
“Another thing we’ve done is we moved we cut off entertainment at 8 o’clock,” Nicholson said, noting that the largest crowds in the past have been for headliner shows after sunset. “We hope we won’t have those huge crowds right in front of the courthouse.”
In contrast, however, organizers are hoping for a bigger turnout at the opening ceremony, which moves from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
“At 10 o’clock in the morning there never was much of a crowd,” he said. “We put on a big event and nobody shows. It’s our 75th and we wanted to do something a little bit different. We’re having a reception with apple goodies from all our growers. Hopefully it’ll be shorter. We’ve cut out a bunch of speakers.”


Party like it’s 2019

 

Even as organizers of large events take precautions, there’s a sense that people are ready to party like it’s 2019.
“It’s not only the Apple Festival,” Steve Smith, Henderson County’s public health director, said. “I was talking to other health directors. We’ve got Tryon Equestrian Center having events and even got the Mountain State Fair moving forward. I guess they all share the advantage of being outside, so that’s certainly helpful.”
Smith suggested “some common-sense types of things I would ask people to be mindful of if they’re attending the Apple Festival or anything else of that nature.”

“Particularly when you’re in a crowded situation like that, with lots of people, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain any kind of physical distancing,” he said. “I would not recommend people attend these events if they have high risk health conditions, whether they are vaccinated or not. Those are just not ideal circumstances for them and there is a risk of exposure in those kinds of settings.”
He strongly encouraged festival-goers to wear face coverings “whether they’re vaccinated or not … and then I think it’s really important for people to segregate themselves when they’re eating or drinking.”
Street fairs and midways have “have great vendors with foods that we all want to try,” he said. “But you’re not going to be able to wear a face covering when you’re doing that. So that’s one of the most important times to make sure you’re separated from other people, in particular not sitting at a table where you’re facing someone else that’s eating or drinking right across from you. We get a lot of transmission happen that way.”
He also recommended people stay home if they’re symptomatic, “be mindful of your health status afterwards” and get tested if they develop symptoms and avoid exposing other people.
“Delta is certainly more contagious,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we have such a surge in cases. We have actually seen some transmission in outdoor settings where people were in close proximity to each other. That’s why it warrants a little extra caution by everybody.”
Although Apple Festival leaders did not seek his advice before they made the decision to hold the festival, Smith contacted organizers “once I heard that it was moving forward and reviewed some of their basic protocols,” he said. “I think they’re trying to put reasonable measures in place and provide people safe guidance and I think people just have to make their own decisions about their level of risk tolerance. I think they are doing what they can to be responsible and keep people safe.”


Growers help one another

Two-day freezes twice in April killed many of the young apples, leaving many farmers with a short crop. Even so, Apple Festival organizers say they will be plenty of apples for sale at the 14 vendors on Main Street this weekend and the roadside stands also say they’ll have a decent supply.
“We will have goldens, red delicious and Winesap for U-pick but none of those are ripe right now,” Leslie Lancaster, one of the owners of Grandad’s Apples, said. “Those will be ready in three to four weeks.” (Check the Upick orchards’ websites for when varieties are ripe.)
“We’re operating on about 30 percent” of a normal yield, she said. The freeze “actually wiped out peaches, nectarines” and several varieties of apples. Like many of the county’s large retail sellers, the Lancasters are buying apples from fellow growers. “Everybody’s been very helpful. I think everybody knows the situation,” she said. “If they usually put them on a truck, I think they’re selling to people who are selling by the roadside. We live in a good community where everybody helps everybody. The crowds are lower than last year but that’s OK” because of the short crop.
Just up the road at Barnwell’s Apple House, Judy Barnwell said her family, too, is buying apples from other growers.
“We had 10 acres of peaches and we only picked 12 of those baskets of peaches,” she said, pointing to containers holding about a peck. “All the farmers lost so much.”


Delta surge stretches providers’ capacity

The Apple Festival and other mass gathering events in the coming weeks come as Pardee UNC Health, Advent Health, Blue Ridge Health Services and public health nurses are struggling to keep up with increasing Covid cases.
Daily cases per 100,000 stood at 60 on Monday, a typical number as the more virulent delta virus spreads.
“Back in June or July, we were at two or three cases, so that’s an extraordinary, really sharp incline of increase,” Smith said. “Many of our local vendors that are doing testing today are reporting (case positivity) percentages as high as 20 percent. We have very high transmission rates in our community. Most of those unfortunately are unvaccinated that are cases or are being hospitalized.”
As a result of the surge, hospital executives in weekly calls “are reporting that they are having difficult days managing the capacity that’s coming at them for hospitalizations, with a significant portion of their ICU capacity consumed by Covid patients and more ventilator demand than they have seen in the past,” Smith said. “Hospitals in the entire region are struggling with the volume and are having to divert patients to whatever beds are available. They’re doing incredible work to manage that but I think it’s everyone else’s obligation including mine to do the best job that we can to prevent more cases from coming at them.”
Smith noted that it’s “wildly controversial” in Henderson County to promote the Covid vaccination. During public comment time county commissioners regularly hear from speakers who declare that the vaccine is unproven and unsafe and that campaigns to promote the shots infringe on individual choice.
“But from a public health perspective it is the absolute best way to protect yourselves,” Smith said. “There are breakthrough cases and some vaccinated people do become positive but what is very consistent is that their symptoms are much much less and it almost always prevents them from being hospitalized.”
As for the Apple Festival and other events meant to be fun, Smith said people ought to be responsible, weigh the risk and be careful.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I just want people to be safe and don’t want them to be burdened with a serious illness or a condition that they might convey to other people that they love or care about.”