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Annual Italian Festival Canceled, What Could Be Next?

The 38th Annual Undo’s Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival will not take place this year because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, board members announced this week. With the outdoor recreation season set to kick off toward the end of next month, the cloud of uncertainty over pandemic restrictions and health concerns have left many summer events up on the air.

WHEELING — For the first time in its 38-year history, the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival is being canceled, and ongoing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic have left many people wondering what other community traditions and special events may be put on hold as the outdoor recreation season creeps closer.

A full slate of vendors and entertainers had already been booked for the 38th Annual Undo’s Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, which was set to take place July 24-26 at Wheeling’s Heritage Port. One of the biggest annual festivals held in the city of Wheeling — and in the state of West Virginia for that matter, the Italian Festival attracts tens of thousands of visitors to the Ohio Valley during the peak of summer.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had to cancel,” said Janice Whipkey, event coordinator for the Undo’s Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival. “When you listen to what the scientists are saying about this pandemic, they don’t think this is going away before this summer.

“In fact, they’re saying they fear there may be a resurgence around the same time our festival was scheduled.

“We just didn’t have a choice. We’re dealing with people’s lives.”

Whipkey said board members for the festival met virtually during a Zoom meeting last Thursday and discussed all of their options. There was some hesitation about whether or not to cancel or proceed with hopes that the crisis would begin to subside by mid-summer, but board members opted on the side of safety.

“Everyone was booked, and everyone was ready, but a decision had to be made because now is the time when we have to start making deposits,” Whipkey said. “It’s a major festival, and it will have a big economic impact on the community, I’m sure.”

The board was planning to announce the cancellation at a later date, but word leaked out before they had a chance to inform all of the vendors, entertainers, city leaders and everyone else who will be directly affected by the cancellation. On Tuesday, Whipkey said they were still in the process of making calls to personally inform everyone of the development.

“We’re just going to start right away with planning for next year,” she said. “We hope to make next year’s festival bigger and better and ever.”

Whipkey said this year’s Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival scholarships still will be awarded. Twelve high school seniors will each receive $1,000 scholarships. Those students are currently being selected and will be named at a later date. Candidates of the annual scholarship must be from Belmont, Jefferson, Ohio, Hancock, Brooke and Marshall counties – two students from each county will be selected.

Scholarship funds are made possible by donations to the organization’s foundation, Whipkey explain, noting that the cancellation of the festival itself will not affect the scholarships.

The person selected as the Italian-American of the Year will be recognized during next year’s festival.

Although Memorial Day weekend typically kicks off the outdoor season of activities, planning for summer season events are being solidified now. While federal and state officials debate how long social distancing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic will last and when to allow affected businesses to reopen, event organizers are having to make tough decisions based on current information.

Now that the biggest event in downtown Wheeling has canceled, there is concern that other planned events for Heritage Port and other venues in the Ohio Valley will start to follow suit.

Another huge series of events for downtown Wheeling — the Ogden Newspapers Wellness Weekend — originally scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, also have been canceled. Down the river in New Martinsville, the popular Back Home Music Festival also announced its cancellation because of the pandemic.

Annual music festivals are falling in line. The annual Dark Star Jubilee slated for Memorial Day Weekend at Legend Valley in Eastern Ohio announced it was postponing its event until next year, as well.

On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust announced its plans to extend the suspension of all events through June 14, which affects two of its signature summer events – the EQT Children’s Theater Festival and the popular Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Organizers for other area events are still making decisions of whether or not to proceed with summer 2020 plans. Those slated for later in the summer are still holding out hope.

So far, the 2020 Heritage Music BluesFest, another big event that takes place in the summer at Heritage Port in Wheeling, is a go.

“Currently, we are moving forward as if BluesFest will happen on Aug. 7, 8 and 9,” Bruce Wheeler, director of the Heritage Music BluesFest, said Tuesday. “All the contracts are in on all of the artists. However, there is a cancellation clause in there — if by chance COVID-19 is at a situation where people should not be congregating during that timeframe.”

Information will be kept updated at www.heritagemusicfest.com, Wheeler said.

In Belmont County, the Blame My Roots country music festival slated for July 16-18 has continued to promote the event while operating “one day at a time” while monitoring recommendations of state and federal health officials as the pandemic continues.

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