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COVID-19 strikes down annual Winterfest

There will be no Polar Plunge, no sled-riding, no fishing derby, no ice skating, but there might be sled-dog races.

Winterfest is another casualty of COVID-19.

On Thursday, the Winterfest committee officially canceled the bulk of the January 2021 event.

Organizers are holding out hope that sled-dog races can still be held.

The event held annually at Chapman State Park fell victim to restrictions related to the virus.

Committee member Wes Ramsey read from an email sent by Chapman Park Manager Tyson Martin that explains state regulations on park usage. “Events of more than 250 people are prohibited,” Ramsey said.

That would be a problem for Winterfest, which has drawn as many as 13,500 people in a weekend, according to committee member Walt Atwood.

The committee would have to pre-register those who plan to attend as well as preparing a COVID-19 mitigation plan, according to the guidelines sent along by Martin. Those rules would apply whether the event were held in full or if only the sled-dog races were to be held, Ramsey said.

“We don’t know what level of detail,” Atwood said. “You’re supposed to be a sled-dog race, not a COVID-19 mitigation team.”

“Even if you dot all your ‘i’s and cross all your ‘t’s, you may not be able to do it anyway,” he said. “It could be that there is going to be another outbreak.”

The 250-person limit effectively eliminated public participation at the event. “I don’t see how we could physically do that for the thousands of people that would normally show up to a full-fledged Winterfest,” Ramsey said. “It reduces us to the possibility of doing a sled-dog race only.”

Committee members said the only time they ever approached 250 spectators at a sled-dog event was last year, at a race held at Hickory Creek. Tidioute Community Charter School sent three busloads of students to the event. Even then, it’s possible there were not 250 people there in total.

Christine Skinner of the Warren County Visitors Bureau cautioned the committee about holding a reduced event. “You run the risk of people coming out to Winterfest” being disappointed, and saying, “I went last year and all they had was the races. I’m not coming back.”

Committee member Ed Atwood has traditionally chaired the sled-dog portion of the event and he was unwilling to give up on that.

“I’d like to do it,” he said. “If it’s okay with everybody here, I’ll keep pursuing it.”

One of his concerns with canceling is that racers will go to another event and not return.

“If you have good snow, it’s worth having them,” even if there cannot be spectators, Ed Atwood said. He said some of the mushers are traveling to events and he expects they would attend the Winterfest races if they were held.

He said he would speak with Martin.

“There’s nothing wrong with going up and discussing what this plan is going to involve,” Ramsey said.

He went on to make a formal motion to cancel the bulk of the festival. That motion was approved unanimously.

“If you think you can do the sled-dog races, figure out the regulations… see if you have any light at the end of the tunnel,” Ramsey said. “We will continue to look into the feasibility of holding sled-dog races.”

The group plans to meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Visitors Bureau, at which time Ed Atwood expects to be able to report on the possibility of holding sled-dog races.

The members wanted to meet again soon in case they need to prepare, submit, and wait for approval of a mitigation plan.

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