‘We Don’t Want a Black Eye On The Festival’

Jill Ater and her dog Pluto look at pumpkins during last year’s Barnesville Pumpkin Festival.

BARNESVILLE – For more than 50 years the first signs of autumn also brought thousands of people to throng the streets for the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival.

This year, the beloved event was canceled due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The decision came on the heels of an announcement Tuesday from Gov. Mike DeWine’s office, curtailing all county fairs except junior fairs occurring after July 31, and halting plans for a full Belmont County Fair this September.

The festival committee met Tuesday night with members of the village council, the Belmont County Health Department and the Belmont County board of commissioners to decide the fate of the pumpkin festival this year.

The decision came hours after it was decided the full Belmont County Fair would be canceled this year, although the junior fair will be permitted to continue.

Festival Board President Tim Rockwell said while the community had been intent on holding the 57th anniversary event with precautions, recent factors had changed. He referred to other announcements from the governor’s office, specifying there are to be no rides or games at fairs or festivals. Moreover, the Barnesville school district continues to prepare to reopen for fall, and Rockwell has been informed by school officials they would not shut down for the festival, meaning the festival would not have use of the school buildings and parking lots.

“That basically shoots us down,” Rockwell said. “With that information alone … it’s just not going to be feasible.”

In addition, Rockwell said if the committee had decided to move forward, there was no guarantee the state would not move to forbid it as it has with other mass gatherings.

“Nobody’s telling us ‘no,’ but it’s kind of a big risk if we decide to try and have it. We can sit here and say, ‘By God we’re going to have it,’ but by September the governor may shut down everything, and by that point, we’ve spent our money on advertising. We’ve spent our money on getting our shirts and our trophies ordered, we’ve spent our money that’s not going to come back.”

Dan Grady, spokesman for the health department, said the agency was not forbidding the festival, but he underlined the situation.

“I think prior to (Tuesday) it would have been challenging to meet the guidelines,” Grady said, adding the organizers are facing significant challenges. “We’re not going to tell you to do something or not.”

Rockwell added other concerns.

“We don’t want a black eye on the festival,” he said. “‘You guys brought 100,000 people into town, my grandma got sick and died. I blame you.'”

Not all of the festival events are off. They will continue to hold the annual pumpkin weigh-in, although a location would be decided. A virtual weigh-in with the event posted on social media is also a likely possibility.

Rockwell said the date of the weigh-in has yet to be decided. The number of contestants for the event is also not known yet.

Belmont County Commissioner J.P. Dutton pledged the help of the county in promoting the weigh-in, adding the pumpkin festival has been a valued event in Belmont County.

“I can understand the purpose of dialing it back,” Dutton said. “We’re in a different place here than we were a month ago.”

Jacquetta Stephens who works as a liaison with the vendors, said the deposits for the close to 70 vendors will be forwarded to next year.

“They all understand. They’ve had this happen with all the other festivals,” she said. “It is what it is.”

“I think it’s the best decision,” Cindy Ward of Barnesville said afterward. “We’re better off being safe than sorry. The festival will be here next year.”


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