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Texas Renaissance Festival

The Renaissance Festival will go on

I haven’t gone to RenFest in years, and I can’t say I was itching to go this year, but it will be there for those who want it.

The 46th annual Texas Renaissance Festival will go on as scheduled this year, but things will look a little different due to the pandemic.

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, tickets will be available for the 2020 festival, which starts Oct. 3 and runs through Nov. 29. Tickets will be date-specific, sold in advance online only and will not be available at the gate, according to the festival website. Tickets may also be purchased at participating H-E-B stores beginning Sept. 1.

The most visible change at the nine-week-long festival is that all staff, performers and vendors will be required to wear a face-covering and receive daily temperature checks before each shift, according to a press release.

If a statewide mask order is in place at the time of the festival, patrons will also be required to wear face masks. If no state order is in place, patrons will not be required but “strongly encouraged to do so.” In line with the festival’s long-standing tradition of themed weekends and creative costumes, a face mask contest will be held every day in search of the attendee with the most creatively decorated mask.

Texas counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases are currently under a statewide mask order. Grimes County, where the festival is held, has 828 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the latest available data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The Houston region is still considered a COVID-19 hotspot and is currently at 98,565 cases total. Texas saw the second-highest day for newly reported deaths on Wednesday, per a Houston Chronicle analysis of state data.

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[Texas Renaissance Festival Marketing Manager Marlena] Solomon said the festival’s 200-acre campground typically never meets 50 percent capacity during a normal season, so capacity limitations will not be issued for this season. She added that in anticipation of capacity limitations that could be issued closer to October, the festival grounds will be limited to 22,500 guests per day.

My interpretation of this is that all guests would be required to wear a mask at this time, since Grimes County is covered by that statewide mask order. But after reading this additional story, I’m not so sure of that.

The mask-optional policy has left some workers feeling that the festival will be unsafe. Niki Korontana has been working at the Renaissance Fest for 12 years, performing as a Transylvanian and pirate for 10 of those years.

She is anemic and has to have iron infusion treatments to correct the disorder. Her fragile immune system leaves her vulnerable to COVID-19, she said, and the festival’s resistance ro institute a mask order puts her in danger. She said she resigned via email and has not received a response from management.

“I do understand that we’re dealing with a lot of upheaval,” she said. “Maybe getting back to me is not a priority, but I put a lot into this job. There’s no way to socially distance in a lot of places. There’s limited access to water and hand-washing. The faire population, as a whole, is broke with no access to health care. On the regular we all get ‘faire sick’ every year even without the outbreak. We’re used to working through all of that, and I can easily imagine people infecting others.”

The festival has lost more than half of their performing staff this year, said marketing and communications manager Marlena Solomon. That estimate includes elderly workers, people in at-risk populations and those who may not want to wear masks in the hot early weekends of the event.

“We respect their decision not to come this season due to their concerns regarding facemasks,” Solomon said. “They will be welcome back next year. No one will be penalized for not being a part of this season.”

Ginnie Eatchel, who has worked at the festival for five years, doesn’t have health issues, but she said she’s quitting, too, without at mask mandate. She said she doesn’t understand how patrons can expect performers to work in full medieval dress, including suits of armor, while they balk at being asked to wear a mask.

“Many of these people at fair are of the Trump mindset saying, ‘No one can impede on my freedom’ or ‘If they make me wear a mask, I’m not buying a pass this year,’” she said. “It’s such a selfish mindset. You’re doing it for other people.”

Solomon said that partisan concerns are not behind the voluntary mask policy. “The decisions are not being made based on political views of our patrons,” she said.

Sure seems like a good case for mandating masks to me. I’d prefer that the RenFest require mask wearing, but I’m not likely to attend anyway, so who cares what I think. Honestly, I’m a little surprised to see that they’re open at all, since many other outdoor events have been cancelled. I would have thought RenFest is sufficiently spaced out that they can reasonably minimize the risks, but now I’m rethinking that. Sure would be nice to be able to do reliable contact tracing just in case. Anyway, RenFest has been going through some changes, so maybe this was just about trying to have a little more normality in our lives. I can sympathize with that.

No State Fair for you

Sorry, Big Tex.

The State Fair of Texas, slated for this fall, was canceled Tuesday because of ongoing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, fair organizers said in a public statement.

“One of the greatest aspects of the Fair is welcoming each and every person who passes through our gates with smiles and open arms,” said Gina Norris, board chair for the State Fair of Texas, in a written statement. “In the current climate of COVID-19, there is no feasible way for the Fair to put proper precautions in place while maintaining the Fair environment you know and love.”

Organizers said the fair, a longstanding tradition for many Texans, is scheduled to run next year from Sept. 24 through Oct. 17 in Fair Park, located in Dallas. More than 2.5 million people attended the fair last year.

Fair organizers said this is its first cancellation since World War II.

A shame, to be sure, but I think we can all understand. Makes me wonder if the Texas Ren Fest, which starts on October 3, will be following suit in the near future. It’s also a reminder that maybe college football and in person political conventions aren’t such a hot idea, either. Just a thought. The DMN has more.

The future of the Texas Renaissance Festival

More specifically, what is the future of the town of Todd Mission, where the RenFest was founded and takes place, as its founder prepares to step down?

At a city council meeting earlier this month in Todd Mission, council members discussed re-doing street signs, and Mayor George Coulam doodled.

Coulam, 82, otherwise known as “King George,” pushed to incorporate this stretch of woodsy land 37 years ago. He had one goal: Protecting the Texas Renaissance Festival he founded here eight years before that.

Houston’s growth attracted Coulam to the area, and he knew better than to leave his life’s work vulnerable to it. The result is a quirky city intimately tied to his creation and under his control. He didn’t want someone else writing the rules.

Now that city is entering a new phase. Coulam is planning for what will happen to his creations after he dies — he’s already built a mausoleum across from his house — and officials in Todd Mission, 50 miles northwest of downtown Houston, are grappling with coming development.

A four-lane tollway is being built on the edge of town, a change they expect to transform this rural city in the pines, which attracted creative types and those who preferred to be somewhere remote.

It’s a scenario repeating across greater Houston, as roadways expand and push farther out — in this case, with a Renaissance twist.

“The city wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the festival,” said City Manager Neal Wendele. Renaissance lettering adorns city signs in Todd Mission. Festival sales tax and business license fees make up most of the $525,000 annual city budget.

Coulam remains a central figure, very much involved in festival operations. He has been the city’s only mayor.

But the municipality he formed is emerging from the festival’s shadow. Wendele was hired last year to fill the city manager position full-time, and the city secretary this year stopped working at the festival.

“We’re working on separating things a little,” said Council Member Heather Moon-Whinnery, who owns a festival shop. “For the longest time, Todd Mission was just the Renaissance Festival.”

There’s more, and it’s partly about the history of the RenFest, partly about founder Coulam, and partly about the landscape Todd Mission faces today. Like Father Time, urban sprawl comes for us all. Go read the rest.