OTTUMWA — Ottumwa’s Oktoberfest is the latest community event called off due to COVID-19.
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the cancellation of Ottumwa Oktoberfest for the first time in 46 years,” reads a release from the Oktoberfest Committee. “Since 1974 Ottumwa’s Oktoberfest has been a staple of Ottumwa and southeast Iowa … Several factors were considered before the decision to cancel was made.”
Safety was the first factor cited. “We have a lot of volunteers that are older folks and may be in a higher-risk category, so that went into our decision,” said Brian Morgan, co-chair of the Ottumwa Oktoberfest Committee.
As a social event, the release says that the visitors the event draws would contradict Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamations on social distancing, especially when factoring in the alcohol served at the event.
“Oktoberfest is a socially mingling event,” Morgan said, adding that beer license holders are responsible for enforcing social distancing. “I own a bar. They could walk in and give me a $1,000 ticket for not enforcing social distancing guidelines.”
He mused that as a community event, there might be more leeway for that but ultimately the committee was not willing to take the risk.
Finances were also a consideration. Morgan said that putting on Oktoberfest costs just over $30,000 each year. While the event is organized and staffed by volunteers, food, beer, insurance and more expenses go into running the event.
“We’ve kept tabs on a few events around southern Iowa over the last two or three months,” Morgan said. “There’s one event in southeast Iowa that last year went through 850 cases of beer. This year it was just over 300.”
With that event essentially down 70 percent, he said, “it led us to believe it would be tough to get those people out.
“Me personally, my biggest issue is and always will be money,” Morgan said. “We need and want to have a successful event. The last thing we want to do is put the future of Oktoberfest in peril because we made a decision that in the end cost us $15,000.”
But it’s not just money for the committee that’s a concern. Profits from the event are used to fund several Wapello County nonprofits and community-based groups. Morgan said over its history, the Ottumwa Oktoberfest Committee has donated more than $250,000 back into the community.
“With all of us being volunteers, we definitely want to make a great event for the public and make a profit [to give back to the community],” he said. “I think the majority of the people understand it. This always still comes down to having an event that is safe for our volunteers and makes money to give back to the community over the next year.”
“Even though we are not having an event this year, we stand by our commitment to the community and will be giving back in some way this year,” reads the committee’s statement.
“We’re proud of it and we want it to be successful for years to come,” Morgan said. “Taking this year off, as much as it sucks for everyone, including us, us canceling it is going to help provide a better Oktoberfest for next year and years to come.”