The Airdrie Festival of Lights (AFOL) received some negative attention during the Dec. 5 weekend after photos circulated on social media of large crowds at the popular event, with many attendees not appearing to follow social distancing protocols or wear masks.
The Festival of Lights’ first Saturday evening of its 2020 season was a “perfect storm” of conditions leading to rules being broken, according to co-ordinator Michelle Pirzek. She said warm weather brought larger crowds than expected, and there was a shortage of volunteers on site that evening.
“We were busy, absolutely, and we were scrambling all night,” she said. “We had some volunteers that didn’t show up and we were kind of managing with the best resources we had in the moment and making decisions on the fly.”
Calgary-based social media account Crackmacs posted photos of the festival’s crowds to Twitter, which led to calls for the City of Airdrie to shut the festival down. The City posted about the concerns on its Facebook page Dec. 6.
"We have been in touch with the non-profit organization that puts on the Festival of Lights this morning," the post stated. "They had already reached out to Environmental Public Health (EPH) through the Alberta government for assistance in making this event safer."
The post went on to state the City has committed more Municipal Enforcement officers to help the festival's organizers ensure health and safety protocols are followed.
"This event did have EPH's approval to run, but between the nice weather, people coming out from Calgary and this being their opening weekend, it was the perfect storm for crowds to become too large," it stated.
Since then, Pirzek said she organizers have devised stricter health measures to prevent crowding for the remainder of the month-long event, such as strongly urging the wearing of masks and roping off certain areas of the park.
“We looked at our entrances and added people counters to those entrances to have a better idea of how many people were coming in,” she said.
After meeting with officials from AHS and the City, Pirzek said rules were better enforced Dec. 6.
“The reality is that it’s an outdoor public space and there is only so much we can control in the setting," she said. "Having the public’s assistance and working with us, which has been fantastic, is helping.
“We can still tweak a couple of areas. We had AHS on site last night and they were mandated to make a decision as to whether or not we should continue, and they feel we should and absolutely can do this. It’s just a manner of getting our perfect storm in place.”
Held every evening throughout December, the Festival of Lights is an annual tradition in Airdrie that dates back to 1995. The month-long festival features hundreds of Christmas light displays at Nose Creek Regional Park, and typically attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year.
This year, Pirzek said the festival’s organizers implemented various measures to comply with public health guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following new gathering restrictions that Premier Jason Kenney announced Nov. 24, she said the festival would be pivoting to a “lights-only” scenario, meaning other components, such as miniature train rides, a concession stand and an activities tent, would not be offered.
As the festival continues through December, Pirzek urged people to be kind and respect the public health measures in effect.
“Our board is wearing thin a little bit – we’re tired and exhausted,” she said. “We spent the day [Dec. 6] from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. in the park, trying to get things in place and make things work.”
She added some of the messages the festival organizers have received in recent days have been “hurtful.”
“At the end of the day, if it becomes a question, the lights are going to be turned off,” she said. “We need people to be kind and work with us. Understand we don’t have all the right answers, but we’re sure giving it our all to find them and do our best."