Crystal Classic cancelled because of concerns about logistics related to COVID-19 pandemic

Siesta Chamber directors agree they cannot take on financial risk, with county health officials having indicated potential of halting event if number of community virus cases began climbing again

People take in the array of items in the Vendor Village next to the sand-sculpting area in 2016. Image courtesy of the Crystal Classic

“We’ve just been ‘2020’d,’” is how long-time Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce director Mark Smith described the decision this week to cancel what would have been the 11th Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival.

Sept. 9 was the drop-dead date to make a decision before Siesta Chamber leaders had to begin signing contracts, if the event were to take place, Smith told The Sarasota News Leader in a Sept. 9 telephone interview. With worries that the novel coronavirus pandemic could stop the festival before it started, Smith said, Chamber leaders did not want to incur significant event expenses they might not be able to recover.

The board finally made the decision that the financial risk was too great, he added.

“We’ve been mulling it over probably since March,” Smith noted, referring to the month the pandemic fully made its presence known in Florida.

Brian Wigelsworth. Image courtesy of the Crystal Classic

The Crystal Classic had been set for Nov. 13-16. The annual event was the brainchild of Siesta master sand sculptor Brian Wigelsworth. He saw it as an opportunity to bring in visitors — and boost business — at a time of year when tourism typically was at a low level on the Key. Even more, Wigelsworth viewed the event as a way to show his fellow sculptors that, because of its fine quartz sand, Siesta Beach is the best place in the world for a major sand sculpting competition.

“It’s such a wonderful event,” Smith agreed in the interview with the News Leader. “We’ve had people contact the Chamber and tell us they’ve scheduled their vacations around it.”

This is not the first of the Siesta Chamber’s annual events to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith pointed out. In the spring, the organization had to cancel its Easter Egg Hunt, which has been held at Turtle Beach Park in recent years.

Logistics for the Crystal Classic, necessitated by the pandemic, were the primary problem with which Chamber leaders had wrestled, Smith explained to the News Leader.

Staff of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County had made clear to Chamber leaders, Smith said, that precautions would have to be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing and reducing the number of people who could be admitted to the sculpture viewing area at any given time. Smith called those steps “just counter to what people do at the beach. They go to the beach to have a good time.” They do not want to be told to keep at least 6 feet away from each other or to wear masks, he said.

Considering the need for people to practice social distancing at the entrance to the Crystal Classic, he added, “They’d be all the way to the Pavilion.”

In years past — on weekends, especially — it was not uncommon to see the ticket line stretching out to the parking lot at Siesta Public Beach.

People wait in line for tickets to the Crystal Classic in 2019. Photo contributed by Harriet Cuthbert

Concerns also were aired, Smith continued, about the need for social distancing at the Vendors Village outside the viewing area.

“You can’t do it,” Smith summed up the challenges. “You just logistically can’t do it.”

Moreover, he said, county staff members made it clear to Siesta Chamber leaders that they “had the right at any time” to cancel the event, even on the day it was scheduled to open.

County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader on Sept. 10 that the Health Department was the entity with which the final decision rested. Cindy Turner, manager of the county’s beaches and water accesses, had explained to him, Winchester said, that she and her staff simply “passed up the line” the plans the Chamber had submitted for the Crystal Classic.

Chuck Henry addresses the County Commission on March 24. File image

In response to a News Leader request, Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer and director of its Health and Human Services Department, provided the following comments in a Sept. 10 email:

“While we cannot predict what the community transmission rates for COVID-19 will be in November, we continue to emphasize the preventative measures individuals can take in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The primary control mechanisms for COVID-19 are social distancing, wearing of face masks, enhanced sanitation & hygiene (especially hand washing), and staying home when you are sick or a known contact of someone who is sick. It is critical that our community continues to practice these control measures regardless of what activities we participate in. While I’m sorry that the Crystal Classic will not be held this year, I support the Siesta Chamber’s decision to cancel.”

Other considerations for the Chamber 

Yet another worry, Smith acknowledged to the News Leader, was the optics of so many people at an event on the beach.

The first Crystal Classic, in 2010, drew an estimated 23,000 people. Typically, in more recent years, Smith noted, the crowd size has been between 60,000 and 65,000. Smith has joked about counting the money from ticket sales, which has enabled him to do a pretty good job of calculating the number of visitors.

“We really didn’t want to be on the nightly news,” he added, referring to images of large family gatherings on holidays earlier in the year, after the pandemic began, and college students packed into fraternity parties.

Chamber directors, Smith said, could not help but think, “We’re going to have all the wrong publicity.”

Asked whether any of the artists scheduled for the festival this year had expressed concerns, Smith replied, “The artists that we contacted were all anxious to participate.”

So many other sand-sculpting events have been cancelled, he noted, including the annual festivals in Fort Myers, which has a longer history than the Crystal Classic. The last he had heard, Smith continued, the organizers of the event on Treasure Island had yet to make a final decision on whether to proceed with their competition.

When the News Leader checked online Sept. 10 for information about Treasure Island’s Sanding Ovations Master’s Cup, the website said, “Our goal is to provide a memorable sand sculpting experience in 2020 with the safety and well-being of all our guests, vendors, and participants a priority. Please continue to check or the Sanding Ovations social media pages for any event updates.”

This is one of the banners on Sept. 10 on the website of the Treasure Island Sanding Ovations Master’s Cup. Image from the website

“We historically have shared artists with those two events,” Smith said of the festivals in Fort Myers and Treasure Island.

One related factor the Siesta Chamber had to consider, he pointed out, was the “difficulty of bringing in artists from overseas because of travel restrictions and quarantines.”

Traditionally, a number of the Crystal Classic sculptors have come from Europe.

The Siesta Chamber directors began talking about the prospect of adjusting the teams to include artists just from the United States, Smith added. “But even then, depending on the timing and the state,” he continued, travel and quarantine restrictions might have been a deterrent.

Andrius Petkus of Lithuania (left) and Dmitry Klimenko of St. Petersburg, Russia, were partners in the 2016 Crystal Classic. Image courtesy Crystal Classic

Yet one more worry, Smith noted, was the fact that if someone were to contract the virus after attending the Crystal Classic, the person might claim the Chamber was at fault and seek some sort of recompense.

Finally, Smith said, the Chamber leaders agreed, “We’d just cut our losses … and write it off for 2020.”

“We’re looking forward to next year now,” he added, “and Godspeed with all those working on vaccines.