Ever since 1974, as many as 400,000 revelers have annually flocked to the banks of the Arkansas River in Wichita for Riverfest. The nine-day June event is a fair, carnival and concert all rolled into one.

But COVID pretty much stopped Riverfest in its tracks last year. Revenues dropped 90% as Wichita Festivals, the nonprofit behind the event, moved it online. The nonprofit cut staff by 30% and furloughed remaining employees.

Financial survival demands that Wichita Festivals find a way to welcome people back in person this year, even with the possibility that social distancing and all other public health measures will still be in place. That would mean ensuring the safety of roughly 9,000 volunteers along with the daily crowds.

Wichita’s Riverfest is hoping COVID does not stop the revelry again this year.

Faced with such a daunting task, the nonprofit turned to … meetings?  Often maligned as useless talkfests, meetings proved the perfect solution for Wichita Festivals. The secret — and one that would seem to hold true for communities of any size — is to involve diverse attendees, and to avoid partisanship while welcoming those with varying political beliefs.

“If you’re going to try to solve a problem, don’t hear from people who think identical to you,” said Ann Keefer, vice president of program development for Wichita Festivals. “The more viewpoints you can get, the better off the solution’s going to be.”

The stakes were high. Keefer said organizers know that beating the pandemic is the only way to return Riverfest to its past glory. “And the only way to beat the pandemic is to wear a mask, social distance, get tested,” she said.

Seizing opportunity

As it turned out, the Kansas Beats the Virus campaign provided a perfect vehicle for Wichita Festivals to listen to people from all walks of life. A partnership between the state of Kansas and the Kansas Leadership Center, Kansas Beats the Virus brought together thousands of Kansans last month to develop grassroots solutions for stopping the spread of COVID.

And with the rocky rollout of the COVID vaccines, health authorities are stressing the continuing need for the basic precautions. “COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the United States are rising,” the homepage of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. “Take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Wichita Festivals convened eleven meetings through Kansas Beats the Virus campaign. The nonprofit’s large volunteer pool helped. All in all, they gathered more than 70 participants. Among them: artists, blue-collar and office workers, writers and parents.

One participant was an assistant grade-school principal who bartends during the summer, another a volunteer at the annual golf tournament fundraiser who also works at a senior center.

Along with brainstorming, the Kansas Beats the Virus convenings helped Riverfest volunteers understand why it’s not full steam ahead for this year, Keefer said. “And it’s because … we don’t want to get too far, too entrenched in it, and then find out that we’re not going to be able to pull it off.”

A Diversity of Political Opinion

Given the polarization in the nation, and the varied participants in the convenings, Riverfest organizers knew that attendees would hold differing political viewpoints. “I have some that are very adamant that think they’ll get a chip in their arm (from the vaccine),” Keefer said. “And there are some who won’t leave their house right now.”

But partisanship did not torpedo the process.

Volunteer and bar owner Jennifer Ray, who was convinced going in that conservative viewpoints would be pervasive, entered her meeting with skepticism as a moderate to left-leaning Democrat.

“I kind of grumbled and rolled my eyes and was like, ‘Oh great, I can’t wait to hear what comes out of this,’” Ray said. “I did feel like I knew their political beliefs and too often anymore I feel like that goes hand in hand with their view of COVID.”

But whatever partisanship there was among the attendees of her meeting, Ray said, none of that surfaced as the group commiserated about the pandemic and its fallout, and then moved onto brainstorming solutions. They eventually landed on a campaign to encourage the community to wear masks.

Longtime volunteer Todd Johnson attended a different meeting and said one participant assigned blame for the virus to the president. But the topic didn’t get much air before moving toward solutions, mostly about educating people to wear a mask, Johnson said.

A moderate Republican, Johnson said, “I just let it die right there, and think most people did. It wasn’t the time for that.”

Keefer sat in on five meetings, and she said in some ways, talk of partisan politics was therapeutic in letting people discuss their beliefs and provide volunteers a better understanding of where everyone stood.

Keefer and the others said that, in the end, participants coalesced around the fact that reining in the pandemic was the only way to hold Riverfest. Accepted public health practices became the bedrock.

The thinking, Johnson said, was that, “for us to move forward, we’ve got to do it with the public safety in mind. Whether you believe that stuff helps or not, at this point it’s our best option. We’ve got to do the right thing for each other.”

Moving ahead

But the Riverfest organizers didn’t stop at brainstorming. Kansas Beats the Virus grants are being used for several initiatives, including a #mask-uerade campaign that is encouraging people to take fun pictures of themselves in masks and to post them on social media around Mardi Gras. The group is also pursuing a social media and billboard campaign that features side-by-side photos of a local hotspot, deserted during the pandemic and crowded pre-pandemic.

On a smaller scale, other Kansas Beats the Virus participants are turning their thoughts into actions as well when it comes to local events.

One example is American Legion Family Post 408 in Derby and Haysville, which is turning its annual pancake feed into a drive-through. The event raised more than $1,100 for the local food bank in 2019, but packing people into a room and feeding them isn’t feasible, of course, in the midst of a pandemic.

The Legion used KLC grant money to buy patio heaters, food warmers and sanitizers in order to serve the traditional flapjacks to community members at curbside for the March event. The group is going to do the same for February’s annual burger burn.

Communities looking for creative solutions to resume community gatherings might also look to Botanica Gardens in Wichita for inspiration.

The organization adapted its annual holiday light display, Illuminations, to fit the reality of COVID. It made the mile-long exhibit one-way, and also allowed for a drive-through option. The display received enthusiastic reviews, Miller said — and it kept patrons safe.

Keefer said to hold Riverfest, the community needed to do much of the adapting.

“Over and over and over again (we hear), … ‘We can’t wait to gather as a community again, we can’t wait to gather by the river and watch fireworks,’” Keefer said. “In order to do those things, our message is going to continually be, ‘You have to help us, or you won’t get there.’ It’s asking people to change their behavior.”

Celia Hack is a freelance writer from Westwood who has covered local government, criminal justice, environmental issues and education for outlets including the The Journal, the Shawnee Mission Post and the Brown Daily Herald. In addition to freelancing, she is studying environmental science and economics at Brown University, where she is a senior.