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Did local festival feed pandemic rise?

Johnson County’s annual Sunflower Festival has received some backlash for going forward while other events, including the annual fireworks show, were canceled because of the pandemic. Event Coordinator Renee Profitt reports that both the city and county gave her permission to continue and that numbers were severely reduced from the event’s average attendance estimate. Photo by Meg Dickens.

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

What City Mayor Parsons preemptively called “one of the safest events in the state” during the July 7 City Council meeting, is now the subject of local complaints and concern. Residents around Johnson County have been talking about the possible connection between the area’s COVID-19 spike and the annual Sunflower Festival. City officials have expressed concerns during meetings about possible exposure and reported relatives who had COVID-19.

When asked about the event, Event Coordinator Renee Profit said, “Our town needed something to look forward to.”

While it is unclear whether the Sunflower Festival is related, it is undeniable that COVID-19 cases skyrocketed after the July 11 event. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19’s incubation period can be anywhere from five days to 14 days. Cases jumped from 44 earlier that week to 63 cases at approximately two weeks after and 172 cases eight days later.

“It has just now hit here,” Alderman Bob Morrison commented before the August 4 meeting. “We’ll have 200 cases by the end of the week.”

According to the Tennessee Government COVID-19 dashboard, as of Monday, August 4, 2020, (at the time of writing this article) there were 349 confirmed cases, one death, and 4,205 negative tests.

The City Council seemed reassured during its July meeting after hearing the festival plans and that Profitt was in contact with the Johnson County Health Department during planning. However, officials reported being disappointed that at least some of these described measures were disregarded.

One difference that council members and others in attendance mentioned repeatedly was vendor spacing. During the meeting, Profitt told members that vendors would be on either side of the road with none in the middle, but that was not the case during the festival. A variety of booths were in the middle of the street including vendors, politicians, and several organizations.

In an interview with The Tomahawk, Profitt explained that this change was directly linked to the City Council’s decision to take back part of the road less than a week before the event. Her original plan required the whole road, which she says she “explained to officials.”

Profitt reports that there was still ample space, and she kept complete compliance with the Johnson County Health Department’s guidelines. This includes having fewer vendors, fewer bands, cutting out features that make social distancing impossible, providing hand sanitizer and masks, and a lot more. Profitt also went to both the City Council and County Mayor for recommendations before the event, and reportedly got the green light from both offices.

It is natural to be worried during a pandemic, but safety precautions go a long way. Area officials suggest wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as a mask or face shield to protect both you and others. So far, no one has enforced it, and there are many reports of people ignoring them during the local mask mandate. Johnson County has left it as a personal choice.

“If you’re going to worry about that, you need to worry about going to Walmart or the grocery store, where you stand in line near people inside closed doors,” Profitt countered those worried about the Sunflower Festival. “We have to continue to live.”

For information on testing and current COVID-19 numbers, visit the Tennessee Department of Health at tn.gov/health.