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Choose Your Own Oyster Fest Adventure

Virtual, hybrid and in-person

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In the middle of planning for its annual Arcata Bay Oyster Festival last year, the folks at Arcata Main Street made the bold shift to a virtual event. With the March declaration of shelter in place and a spring of gradually climbing COVID-19 case numbers, most festivals here and across the country were canceling. But in the hope of aiding businesses hit hard by the pandemic, organizers leaned into burgeoning Zoom culture and put forth a seven-hour viewing party complete with pre-recorded interviews and mini documentaries, games and streaming live music, as well as the annual Best Oyster judging, all to be consumed at home, possibly with a pre-ordered takeout meal of local oysters and beverages.

A year later, the terrain ahead is less alien but, despite the availability of vaccines, not much more certain. As Humboldt County's COVID-19 case count climbs again and local health officials scramble to vaccinate as many people as possible,  organizers of the June 26 event are taking a flexible approach, with three options for participation: totally virtual, hybrid and in-person.

Nick Matthews, Arcata Main Street's president, says last year the organization "really led the path in the way we did it and I'm proud of that." Now, he says, knowing how a virtual program can increase the festival's reach, it may become a permanent element. This year, while restrictions have loosened somewhat, he says, "Safety is imperative ... so we just wanted to give choices to people."

Once again there will be the purely virtual experience of picking up to-go packages of food and drink from local producers and streaming live and pre-recorded events from home, similar to last year. People who choose the hybrid option can view the all-day entertainment from participating restaurants that will also be showing it on the big screen and likely featuring oysters and other specials on the menu. The third option, which is still being finalized, will be in-person dining at reserved tables served by one of possibly four restaurants at a still-to-be-determined outdoor location. "We're just trying to do baby steps to get back on the plaza again," says Matthews.

Originally there were plans to set up dining on the Arcata Plaza but that proved difficult with the state's guidelines for events, particularly in terms of limiting the number of people. Organizers hope in-person logistics and participating restaurants will be hammered out at a May 12 meeting and, once finalized, posted on Arcata Main Street's website and at the Sunday Art Market.

The choose-your-own-adventure format also gives participating businesses more options. Setting up a booth at the festival in 2017 cost $600, plus ingredients, mobile cooking equipment that'll pass fire and health department inspections, and all-day staffing. This year, the event website pitches restaurants on the in-person, "household-only dining experience" with a subsidized plan. "We will cover a set amount of the cost of goods to produce a menu item. We ask that our participants bring their creativity, at least two servers and a lot of energy!"

Even if they're not up for setting up service at whatever location organizers choose or hosting the team of Best Oyster judges making the rounds, restaurants can still participate. They might opt to have their sauce or other oyster accompaniment featured in a takeout package or host a hybrid viewing party. Matthews says the flexibility allows Arcata Main Street to include operations of all sizes and budgets, established and new. "The idea is really to promote the businesses, to get everything rolling again and allow people to see things are coming back," he says.

The three-pronged approach also means flexibility for organizers, should a further surge in positive COVID-19 cases put a damper on gathering. "Obviously we're looking at anything that can happen," says Matthews.

Over the phone from the Arcata Main Street office, Shoshanna, hostess of the Fairy Festival and last year's virtual Arcata Bay Oyster Festival, sounds giddy at the prospect of hosting another seven-hour online event. Even if COVID-19 numbers were to cancel the in-person and hybrid elements, "We will have some awesome bands and some awesome things. ... It'll still be a super awesome party but, man, I hope it doesn't need to go that way," she says with a peal of nervous laughter.

So far, the lineup of bands streaming from the Arcata Playhouse stage includes The Latin Peppers, The Grateful Getdown, The Paula Jones Band and Amber Soul. Dave Silverbrand is slated to conduct the oyster calling contest at a Sunday Art Market, which Shoshanna hopes will ramp up Oyster Fest season and offer a taste of the events of yesteryear. "It seems like any kind of festival vibe we've had this year have been at the farmers market." Since she can't offer mermaid photo ops with little ones from her usual half-shell throne, she's also busy making kid's craft kits with coloring sheets and art materials. "We're trying to find some way for everyone to feel connected to it."

"The fest and events they go to this year might not be the same but they're trying to get the essence of it," says Shoshanna, who's been impressed to see organizers for different events and organizations collaborating and getting creative, talking to each other about calendars and scheduling. "There's been lots of creativity, lots of pivoting. I'm an improvisational dancer so I can handle that," she says with a giggle.

Her advice is to seize the joy and togetherness at whatever celebrations are available to us, even if they're not like they used to be — to enjoy the outdoor markets and the virtual viewings, since we may not be "back to normal" in terms of events and performances for a while.

It's getting better, she says, "but it's still gonna be weird."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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