Oktoberfest 2021: Planning a big festival during the age of COVID-19

September 2021 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, Community, Food & Drink, Music, People, Travel, Your Health

Much of the Mount Angel Oktoberfest can be enjoyed out of doors along the village streets, or in tents.

The familiar Oktoberfest venues will be up and running for the 2021 festival, some with new attrac- tions and activities.

By Melissa Wagoner

There have been a lot of sleepless nights for Oktoberfest board members since the COVID numbers began climbing in mid-July because, by then, planning for Mount Angel’s annual festival was well underway and organizers – having spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in planning – were loath to pull the plug. 

“We thought long and hard when we were looking at it in June,” Monica Bochsler, director of public relations and marketing for the festival, said. Recalling that, at that time, things were really looking up. COVID case numbers were down, vaccination rates were up, restrictions were loosening and the word “over” had begun to tentatively make its way into the lexicon. 

“Governor Brown said when we reached 70 percent the Pendleton Round-Up was good to ‘Let ‘er buck’ So, we thought we were in,” Bochsler continued. 

And that’s still technically true. Even though COVID numbers started to rise again this summer’s large annual events have not been canceled. 

“I went to the Oregon State Fair and the crowds were gigantic,” Peter Schmidt, vice president of venues, said. “The vendors I talked to said they had a smashing weekend. It made me feel confident that we’ll have a successful event.”

That is most likely true. Having missed annual traditions, like Oktoberfest, completely for more than a year, many people are itching to get out and socialize. In fact, if the number of visitors to the event’s webpage is any indicator – and according to Bochsler it generally is – then this year should be as well-attended as ever.

“Overwhelmingly it’s been a pretty positive reception,” Bochsler, who keeps tabs on the social media response, said. 

But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some push-back from those who think the festival should have been canceled
for 2021. 

“We respect the fact that people see COVID from different angles…” Bochsler said. “But we’re looking at the ability for Oktoberfest to survive.”

That’s because property taxes alone amount to $60,000 annually and, with Oktoberfest organized solely by volunteers, they were not eligible for PPP loans or other forms of government assistance. 

“Oktoberfest, Inc. has expenses that must be met each year regardless of whether we hold a festival,” Bochsler confirmed in a press release posted on the festival’s website. “Think of things like property taxes, insurance, basic utilities…”

And they’re not alone. Nonprofits such as schools, sports teams and volunteer organizations throughout the Willamette Valley also rely on Oktoberfest as a main source of revenue.

“If they’re not able to get that income this year they may not survive as well,” Bochsler stated. She pointed out that in 2019 an estimated $750,000 in income was earned by the 50 organizations who participated. 

“These are the things we have had to weigh,” she said.

So, with these thoughts in mind, organizers moved forward with planning but it has gone anything but smoothly. 

“This year has been fascinating,” Bochsler said. “The biggest surprise was the supply chain issues.”

“We’ve been having to make some last-minute changes because we’re realizing we’re not going to get some of the products we’re used to having,” Schmidt said, naming a string of German beers that are either unavailable or stuck on a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean alongside this year’s commemorative steins.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Schmidt said. “And this is my seventh year doing this job.”

And they’re not the only ones having trouble.

“The food booths are having issues getting supplies, too,” Bochsler noted. “And they can’t get volunteers…”

Entertainment, too, has been challenging, with the current border closures affecting bands hailing from Germany and Canada.

“And even the Klaberheads will be unable to attend because of travel,” Bochsler said. “But Mollie B is back. She’ll be in the Weingarten and that’ll be fun. And we’ll have the Z Musikmakers.”

There will be a few other changes. The shuttle, normally ferrying visitors to and from the Mount Angel Abbey, will not be running this year, nor will the athletes who generally participate in the annual five and 10-kilometer road race. 

“The race director backed out,” Bochsler explained. “But it will return.”

And there will be some additions this year as well. 

“This year we have new food booths, new beers, [the Kids Polka Party with] the Astorgas – that’s going to be fun – and a train that’s also going to be fun,” Bochsler said specifying Holy Trinity School as a new food booth, a German hefeweizen as the newest beer and a model train – large enough to ride on – as the newest attraction.

“And people are already saying, ‘What are we going to be doing next year?’”

Which is a testament to the dedication of the Oktoberfest board, which has already put in hundreds of hours of service toward this year’s event.

“It’s a second job, that’s for sure,” Schmidt confirmed.

It’s also a tradition, one that has been taking place for the past 56 years. 

“So many people are ready to be together again,” Bochsler pointed out, invoking this year’s motto, which is “The Joy of Being Together Again”. 

“Everybody loved, a couple of years ago, when it was ‘The Joy of Getting Together,’” Bochsler recalled. And so, when the topic of a new motto came up, she didn’t offer anyone a choice because it just seemed to fit – at least in her opinion. But she knows not everyone agrees.

“I have no doubt there are people out there saying, ‘What are they doing?’” Bochsler admitted. And she understands. 

“We really do respect other people’s opinions on this – we’re not doing it lightly or flippantly.”

In fact, Bochsler is already bracing for a year in which attendance is much less than the estimated average of 350,000 to 400,000 attendees the festival is used to. And she is not trying to convince anyone who is not comfortable with the risks that are inherent in a festival with crowds to attend. 

“A lot of people are saying, is there any way you can do a to-go option,” she said of the many requests she has received for an at-home Oktoberfest package similar to the one offered last year. While a prepaid package is not on the table this year, Bochsler does hope those who are not comfortable attending in-person will find a way to still support the local economy.

“We’re encouraging them to visit
Mt. Angel Sausage Company and do their own at home,” she said. 

For those who are looking forward to attending this year’s Oktoberfest in-person, the planning committee is doing everything in their power to make the weekend as safe and fun as possible, including following state and local COVID requirements.

“I’m working on ways of making our servers more comfortable,” Schmidt said. Adding, “If they want barriers, we’ll have them. And we have a lot of hand sanitizer that will be available… a lot.”

In the meantime, the board will continue to anxiously monitor city, state and federal guidelines as well as the COVID metrics.

“We’re praying the COVID numbers go down,” Bochsler said when she met with Our Town on Aug. 31 – a mere 15 days before the festival. 

“But as far along as we are, we have to keep going full steam like it’s going to happen.”

“We really do respect other people’s opinions on this – we’re not doing it lightly or flippantly.”

Monica Boschler,

Oktoberfest director of Public Relations and Marketing

***

‘I’m working on ways of making our servers more comfortable. If they want barriers, we’ll have them.’

Peter Schmidt,

Oktoberfest Vice President of Venues

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