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Festival season returns as health care systems deal with pandemic

Irmo Okra Strut, SC State Fair, Newberry's Oktoberfest and football are back as in-person events as COVID cases rise in South Carolina
Credit: Irmo Okra Strut

IRMO, S.C. — Festival season is slowly returning to South Carolina after a year of postponements and cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic. While there have been some modifications to some -- Columbia's Greek Festival Sept. 16 through 19 is a drive-thru event -- others are returning to in-person events, albeit with COVID-19 precautions in place.

The Irmo Okra Strut is scheduled to return on Sept. 24 and 25 at Irmo Community Park. The two-day event will feature a block party and live music on Friday evening before the okra-related festivities on Saturday.

Lexington Medical Center again sponsors the Strut that averages 25,000 festivalgoers each year. Sponsorship, however, does not mean ownership or control of whether or not an event occurs, is scaled back, or if event organizers put COVID-19 protocols in place.

On Aug. 27, the leadership at the Midlands health care giant sent a letter to all municipalities in Lexington County, asking for help in trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 by reinstating mask ordinances within the various jurisdictions. At that time, Lexington Medical Center stated that the hospital beds were full, with patients waiting in beds in the Emergency Department. The hospital was juggling an already stretched staff and resources to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients -- 192 patients in isolation, 49 in intensive care units (ICU), and 43 on ventilators.

As of Wednesday, Sept. 15, Lexington Medical Center reported an occupancy level of 91% with 145 hospitalizations related to COVID-19 (17 vaccinated patients, 128 unvaccinated), 39 in ICU (2 vaccinated, 37 unvaccinated), and 3 deaths from COVID-19.

The hospital has -- again -- encouraged all eligible people to get vaccinated.

In response to a question from WLTX about balancing sponsorship of popular events during a pandemic, leadership at Lexington Medical Center responded:

Lexington Medical Center has multi-year sponsorships with a variety of organizations and events in the Midlands. Proceeds from these events support important programs and enhance the lives of people in our community.

Because of this good work, Lexington Medical Center has chosen not to withdraw its financial support, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hospital does not play a role in contributing to decisions about scaling back or postponing the events. But because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Lexington Medical Center has decided that hospital staff members and volunteers will not have an on-site presence at the events this year.

Irmo Okra Strut organizers have posted on the festival's website:

The 47th Annual Lexington Medical Center Irmo Okra Strut kicks off opening ceremonies on September 24th in-person at the Irmo Community Park. Safety is our primary concern at The Lexington Medical Center Irmo Okra Strut. We ask each person to make the best health decision for themselves and others by following the most recent guidelines of the CDC and State of South Carolina.

Extra hand sanitizing stations will be available throughout the park. Social distancing and mask wearing is encouraged. Please use your best judgment of your own health in attending this year’s Okra Strut as COVID-19 is still a known concern in South Carolina.

We are looking forward to an Okra Strut festival as close to normal as possible, with a great line up of entertainment on Friday the 24th and Saturday the 25th, the Saturday morning parade, and numerous food vendors and craft fair exhibits.

We hope to see you healthy and happy at The Lexington Medical Center Irmo Okra Strut.

More festivals on the horizon

The Irmo Okra Strut is the first in-person festival to return, but not the largest. 

Advance tickets for the South Carolina State Fair, scheduled for Oct. 13-24, are now on sale. The Fair, which was a drive-through food and exhibit event last year, returns fully as an in-person event this year. 

While organizers are stressing attendees wear face masks and practice social distancing while at the Fair, they have also posted a COVID-19 warning on SCStateFair.org that states:

COVID-19 exposure is an inherent risk in any public locations where people are present: Guests should only attend after evaluating their own health risks. Purchase of a ticket and entry onto the Fairgrounds constitutes your understanding of these risks and your willingness to undertake the risk of exposure. No refunds will be given following your entry on to the Fairgrounds. We encourage each guest to take responsibility for their own health and safety, in addition to acting with care for the health and safety of those around them.

Hand sanitizer stations and cashless payment options will be added for visitors and South Carolina State Fair employees will increase maintenance of public areas and follow CDC guidelines.

Organizers of Newberry Oktoberfest announced on Thursday, Sept. 16, that the city's celebration of German heritage is scheduled for October 2. The event that takes place in downtown Newberry features Germain cuisines, biergartens, kindertown, live music, arts and crafts, and antique cars. Newberry Oktoberfest also draws about 30,000 visitors to the area. Organizers are asked to review and abide by the festival's COVID-19 Attendee Policy that asks festivalgoers to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and recommends protecting themselves by getting vaccinated. The policy states: Attendees not respectful toward festival staff, volunteers, vendors, and other attendees will be asked to leave the festival.

The biggest test of festivals as spreader events will occur on October 16 when football and fairgoers mix and mingle. The University of South Carolina Gamecocks will host Vanderbilt at Williams-Brice Stadium. Almost 500,000 attend the South Carolina State Fair every year and -- at capacity -- Williams-Brice can accommodate 80,000 fans.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reported 4,306 new COVID-19 cases and 49 deaths.