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Fall, as we know it, is canceled. So, Columbia is finding new ways to fill the season

You may have your pumpkin spice lattes, your flannel shirts, your Friday night lights and your corn mazes.

But friends, let’s face it: Fall, as we know it, is canceled.

Spring was a lost season. Anxious, isolated, paralyzed. Summer was uncertain at best, restless for certain.

Fall, though. Fall was practically canceled well before it quietly, calmly crept upon us.

By about mid-summer, we knew we’d have no State Fair, no Oktoberfest, no Famously Hot Pride Festival, no Greek Festival, no chili cookoff in Five Points, no Jam Room Music Festival, no “Dracula” ballet, no Okra Strut, and more. At least, not versions of those events we’d recognize.

Facing the loss of these many harvest-time gatherings, we’ve patched together something new this fall.

“We’re looking to recreate those things that are close and dear in our hearts, but … the main focus really is health and safety,” said Ada Belton, who, as a homecoming organizer for Benedict College, is adjusting to celebrate her alma mater from home in a new way this fall.

A number of happenings are going drive-thru or virtual, or they’re getting smaller and more intimate, or they’re moving outside from indoors. Maybe these makeshift events are placeholders; or maybe they’re the start of new traditions we’ll enjoy long after we’ve moved past face masks and elbow bumps and intrusive nose swabs.

“It’s making us really open our eyes to things we’ve never been forced to have to think about before. And who would’ve dreamed we’d be where we are,” said Nancy Smith, who, as general manager of the S.C. State Fair, was in charge of deciding whether to hold the state’s largest event of the year.

“Being the largest thing in the state in a COVID environment is not a good thing to be.”

Smith knew months ago that this fall wouldn’t be like any other.

Yet, it seemed impossible to go a year without the State Fair, that defining event of a Southern fall. To miss the Ferris wheels, those funnel cakes, that gigantic blue-ribbon pumpkin, the sand sculpture, the barns full of animals. And the rocket. The rocket! (Actually, it’s a missile, but still.)

But with some 70,000 South Carolinians already infected by the novel coronavirus by mid-July, more than 1,000 S.C. lives already claimed, Smith and her team knew the fate of the fair. Not this year.

More important to Smith than even the Fiske Fries and candied apples — the same ones that, as a child, she’d bring home from the fair to her neighbor, Ms. Lawrence (“I can still see her face when I would present her with that red candy apple.”) — was the health and safety of her 5 million neighbors across the state. Fair officials made the call in July to cancel the fair as we know it, three months before the fairgrounds would have opened their gates.

“We knew we could not bring the fair that (people) know and love to everyone the way they were used to seeing,” Smith said, as she and the State Fair team calculated an alternative event.

Unlike the springtime, when the coronavirus was still a mystery that took South Carolina by surprise — setting off a domino effect of quick cancellations from the St. Patrick’s Day festival in Five Points to the Carolina Cup in Camden — fall events in the Midlands by and large saw the writing on the wall well in advance and have canceled or changed plans with plenty of time to spare.

“It really did start around St. Patrick’s Day when we were really taking a close look at it, and it really was difficult at the time,” said Drew Theodore, the parish president for Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, which hosts Columbia’s annual Greek Festival. “It was a difficult decision, and not knowing then what we know now.”

It took about a month of debating before church leaders decided “there’s no way. We just can’t do it,” Theodore said.

A trio dine on traditional Greek food during a past Greek Festival. Tracy Glantz FILE PHOTO

They couldn’t figure out how to present a safe event that likely would attract more than 100,000 visitors over four days, how to safely prepare the scores of grilled chickens and gyros and pastries that have made mouths water for more than 30 years. By luck or by something else, Theodore doesn’t know which, the Greek Festival has become one of the capital city’s most popular events.

Without it, the church has been left fielding questions from “so many people … just asking, ‘Why can’t y’all just do something?’” Theodore said. “It was cool hearing from people that were really almost insistent — ‘You’ve got to do something!’ ‘I look forward to this every year!’”

So, what, then? No fun? No fall at all?

Not necessarily.

This year, we welcome a new fall with new ways to come together, as safely as possible.

For instance, rather than ride to the top of the Ferris wheel, cotton candy in hand, the State Fair invites us to ride together in our own cars and, even if in a small way, soak in some of those familiar fair joys — the prized produce, the artwork, the animals and, bless it, the fried food.

“It was important for us to still keep the fair alive, to bring people something positive to look forward to. From March to October, that’s a long journey,” Smith said. “We felt it was more important now than ever to bring something to people.”

The drive-thru State Fair will be Oct. 20 and 21 at the state fairgrounds.

A few weeks later, the Greek Festival will follow suit with a drive-thru festival of its own, being planned largely in response to the public outcry over the traditional event’s cancellation. There’ll be a slimmed-down selection of favorite festival foods available for drive-thru ordering and pickup. Details, including dates, are still being arranged, Theodore said.

Even amid the pandemic that has necessarily pulled us so far apart physically, for many, this fall is about finding new ways to come together.

Fall is a time of coming together and coming home for college students and alumni everywhere. At Benedict College, fall homecoming is a veritable family reunion — quite literally for many families like Ada Belton’s, whose sisters, nieces, nephews and in-laws share her alma mater and converge in Columbia from their homes across the country for the week-long celebration each October.

As essential to the season as changing leaves and trick-or-treating, homecoming at Benedict is a signature fall event, a week of purple-and-gold-clad festivities — awards, group meals, class reunions, a parade, performances and the Saturday homecoming football tailgate.

Instead, this year “will be a stay-at-home-coming,” said Belton, a 1977 Benedict graduate and the school’s Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations and Advancement Services. But “not coming together in some way, it was just really not an option to just not to do anything.”

Virtual homecoming events — and organizers are still working out just what those will look like — aren’t what anyone would have hoped for, but they at least give the community something to look forward to. They help to fill a void of joyful anticipation, a kind of hope that’s been missing for many people all year. Events are being planned for the week of Oct. 12.

Tailgating and merrymaking with friends and family before and during Benedict College’s homecoming football game is a tradition for graduates and fans alike. This year’s homecoming game on Oct. 22, 2016, is a battle of the tigers as the Benedict Tigers play the Morehouse College Tigers. Here, from left, Robin Duren (Class of 1979), Arlene Lathan and Larry Tidwell fix their plates at the Belk Brother’s tailgating tent. Rob Thompson RTHOMPSON@THESTATE.COM

Likewise, Columbia’s largest college, the University of South Carolina, is replacing many of its traditional homecoming events with virtual events, including online reunion class drop-ins and a Zoom brunch, the weekend of Oct. 16-18.

“Most people are tired of being home, so hopefully we can give them something to enjoy while they’re there,” Belton said.

Traditional homecoming, that hallmark celebration, is “hard to replace,” she acknowledged. But “it’s about staying safe and healthy and knowing that next year, it’s coming.”

We’ll take what this fall has handed us because, yes, next year is coming.

The State, September 29, 2020.

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