As the days grow warmer and COVID-19 lingers, bivalve enthusiasts have wondered what's to become of the 30th annual Arcata Bay Oyster Festival, née Oyster Fest. On Saturday, May 23, the answer came, at least partially, from Arcata Main Street's Facebook page and website. The all-day seafood, beer and music binge is going virtual June 20. "We plan to show a different, more informational side of our oysters, the Arcata Bay, our local breweries and restaurants by creating an interactive virtual experience," the post announces.
Arcata Main Street, for which the festival is the single largest source of revenue, also teases available DIY food and drink kits packed with oysters, local beer, wine and cider to enjoy while streaming the event. The artwork on the organization's website still includes oyster farmers, chefs, the annual Best Oyster competition, live music and DJs, as well as history and an aptly named "HSU House Party."
The COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing required to slow the spread of the virus has put the kibosh on mass gatherings until state and county health officials declare the area ready for stage four and the end of shelter in place. The notoriously crowded Oyster Fest, drawing visitors from far and wide, would, of course, be impossible under these restrictions. But it's not just a canceled party — these are cultural and social losses for Humboldt communities, as well as financial gut punches for organizations and vendors counting on summer event revenue, not to mention the opportunity to showcase their wares before potential new customers. One need only look at last year's ruckus over the exclusion of Humboldt beer at the festival, due to the deal Arcata Main Street struck with Crescent City's SeaQuake Brewing, to see how vital the exposure and connection to the massive community event are for local businesses.
The Humboldt County Fair recently announced its cancelation with acknowledgement of the economic impact it will have on local hotels, restaurants and other businesses, as well as a promise from the fair board and Junior Livestock Auction Committee to "support youth livestock exhibitors thru the completion and sale of their 2020 livestock projects." The Mad River Festival is likewise holding off until 2021, though Dell'Arte has an increasing roster of online panels and streaming of prior performances to feed its theater audiences. Even the Grand Kinetic Sculpture Race turned to streaming teams performing solo challenges and Eureka's Friday Night Market is re-emerging as an online shopping hub for local products.
But adapting food festivals to live online platforms anywhere has yet to be tested and the plans for taking Oyster Fest virtual are still to be revealed. Over the phone, board member Ceva Courtemanche says that the goals, however, are clear: "We're just trying to stimulate the economy." If organizers are able to do that, Oyster Fest might serve as a test balloon (or even blueprint) for beer festivals and other events normally scheduled for the summer and fall.
Courtemanche says the general idea is for people to pick up pre-ordered kits and "do their own small intimate oyster fest while streaming from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. ... and people can stream it like a football game or an awards show or something like that." It's a socially distant take on a communal eating experience, though more focused on watching a central presentation than the two-dimensional mingling of the Zoom cocktail hours and dinners so many of us have taken up.
"We're working on certain aspects of it," she said, adding that "people can follow our website because, as we go, we're going to be announcing more information." The ecology of the bay, oyster harvesting methods and back stories of local breweries are among the topics of the streaming segments but for now, the participating presenters, oyster producers, breweries and wineries — even the name of the artist who created the illustration on the website — are under wraps. For full disclosure, I've again been invited to judge the oyster competition but the logistics of that event, where judges normally would huddle around a common table and sample the entries of restaurants and vendors around the plaza, haven't been shared with me, either.
Like so much of our survival and enjoyment — in food and company — in the shadow of the pandemic, the strategies are shifting and we'll have to wait and see.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.