A Sunflower Festival that gives hope for socially distanced events

The Clarksville Sunflower Festival features a five-acre field of sunflowers. (Adam Dreyfuss/For The Diamondback)

One of the major disappointments of this summer is that large-scale events have had to be canceled for the safety of their patrons. That’s not at all surprising, given the current state of affairs: There’s just no way to pack hundreds of thousands of people into open fields and campsites without spreading various infectious diseases. With no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, what are festivals going to look like in the future? Let’s look to smaller get-togethers, such as the Clarksville Sunflower Festival, to see the possibilities in adapting to the current restrictions.

The Sunflower Festival — which includes food trucks, musical performances and a giant field of the eponymous flowers that visitors can collect — had to change certain aspects of its events to ensure that the dangers of COVID-19 were kept to a minimum.

For one, the festival is no longer an all-day event. Instead, guests have to sign up for a specific time to enter Mary’s Land Farm, usually spaced out at half-hour intervals. Also, only 50 people are allowed in during each time slot. Because of these restrictions, almost all of the Sunday festivities were sold out well in advance. The festival is spaced out over a week, so you won’t be prevented from experiencing the festivities, but you will have to plan in advance.

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The restrictions thankfully did nothing to dampen the atmosphere. Even in the face of early rainy weather, the festival remained open and vibrant. The main attraction — the five-acre field of sunflowers — actually benefited from the necessary space and separation, allowing for a greater appreciation of the expansive rows of flowers that seemed endless. With food provided by local food trucks and independent vendors selling everything from clothes to fruits and vegetables in the same pavilion musicians were playing jam band-inspired tunes, the whole festival had a hippie-dippy vibe. Given its space and successful first weekend, there’s no reason why the Sunflower Festival couldn’t theoretically expand in the future.

So what can major festivals learn from their smaller counterparts? Well, for one, they’ll see it’s indeed possible to put on a big event in the COVID-19 era. Granted, it wasn’t Firefly or LOCKN’-sized capacity, but the Sunflower Festival continuously focused on the safety, and management, of its patrons. The reality is that these large festivals are going to have to be content with a severely reduced number of guests — and recognize the trade-offs that come with that.

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Is it financially worth it for Bonnaroo to cut their patronage by nearly 50 percent just to ensure the safety of those who do end up making the pilgrimage? Most likely not, but that’s what they’re going to have to do if they want to stick around. No respectable festival should let their guests take their lives into their own hands, even if the outcry for individual freedom grows louder as the pandemic continues to proliferate.

Ultimately, there is no good answer for major festivals, and we are unlikely to see the likes of Burning Man or Lollapalooza until at least next year. Maybe in the coming months, we could see well-designed, intelligently implemented festivals that don’t involve getting the coronavirus just to see Smash Mouth. One can dream …

The Clarksville Sunflower Festival continues to run until Aug. 23. General admission is $13, while children’s tickets are $6.

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