In the past few days, outbreaks of COVID-19 have led to mass cancellations and postponements of events around the country, from the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament to Coachella. Though Charlottesville’s first presumptive positive case was just announced on March 16, efforts to contain the virus spread as much as possible led organizers to call off one of the city’s largest events of the year, the Virginia Festival of the Book.
The decision was weeks in the making, according to Jane Kulow, director of Virginia Center for the Book. Festival staff began monitoring the coronavirus situation in late February, and started receiving cancellations from authors as early as March 2, including one from Washington who told them, “You don’t want me to come.”
On March 4, staff released a statement announcing that the festival would proceed as planned. But by March 9, they had “received many more cancellations and queries from people,” especially those who are immunocompromised, Kulow says. It became clear that it was best to cancel the festival.
“This festival has a 25-year legacy, bringing 20,000 to 30,000 people into the community,” Kulow says. “We know the community is disappointed, [and] that it’ll have a huge economic impact…but the bottom line is we have to consider the health of the community.”
“This has been a very emotional process for the festival’s staff, but it’s been made easier by the warm, sympathetic responses we’ve received,” she adds.
Since announcing the festival’s cancellation last Wednesday, its three staff members have been busy sending individual messages to attendees, authors, publishers, venues, and volunteers, as well as “answering questions about refunds, and undoing all the program logistics that we’ve spent a year planning,” says Sarah Lawson, assistant director of Virginia Center for the Book.
Because most of the festival’s programs are free to the public, staff plan a select amount of ticketed events, such as lunches and banquets, and other sponsored programs to help offset costs. But now that the festival’s missed out on these major fundraisers for the year, its staff is asking ticket holders to donate part (or all of) their refund to the festival, and is inviting the public to make donations.
Authors who planned to attend the festival have also lost out on book sales, Kulow adds. “We encourage everyone to buy their books at local bookstores,”—to help both the authors and the stores that depend on the influx in sales the festival brings in.
“We had a wonderful command center for the book festival in our basement, where we had all the books organized by day and by event,” says New Dominion Bookshop owner Julia Kudravetz. “We’d still love to sell them to people, so they can have those books during this unusual time. We count on that as a significant part of our income for the year, how we pay our staff, and continue to bring literature to the community.”
New Dominion will be closed to the public until at least March 31, but—with just a call or email ahead—customers in Charlottesville and Albemarle can get books delivered to their doorstep for free. (Those outside of the area can get books shipped.) Anyone willing to venture to the Downtown Mall can get their books in person through the shop’s curbside pickup service.
And with the thousands of visitors the festival brings in every year, the city’s hotels, restaurants, vendors, and other attractions will certainly take a hit from its cancellation, says Courtney Cacatian, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Omni Charlottesville, for example, was set to host several events during the festival. The hotel says it’s reimbursing reservations from both authors and attendees who were coming to town specifically for the festival.
While book lovers will have to wait until next year for a full-fledged festival, its staff is currently in conversation with other book festivals around the country about putting on a virtual event, which would include programming and conversations from an array of authors.
“We’re [also] exploring additional year-round programming for the local community,” adds Lawson. “Stay tuned!”