The skies will be clear the third weekend of September, which most were hoping for – particularly the hot air balloonists, who were planning on flying over Creston during the town’s 43rd Annual Southwest Iowa Balloon Days celebration. However, as organizers attempted to wait to see how the COVID-19 virus would develop, they were forced to make a decision due to a deadline required by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Ellen Gerharz, Creston Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the committee was trying to hold out on making the call to cancel or host the event as it was difficult to know what new guidelines or regulations will be in place two months down the road. But, the FAA required at least 60 days to file the permit for the event.
“Their only requirement was that we had to follow the CDC guidelines,” said Gerharz. “There was no way we could say, honestly, that at every moment we had an event that we would be following the CDC guidelines.”
“Obviously this has caused me to lose a lot of sleep over the last several months thinking through things and looking at different scenarios. Even though I hate cancelling it this year, I hate it beyond belief, I think it was the right decisions,” said Roger Lanning, Balloon Days committee chair person.
Gerharz said it’s a “downer” for the community and she agrees with those she is in communication with, that Creston needs some positive events to take place.
“We only had 19 balloons that responded that they would come and we usually lose two or three because things come up,” said Gerharz. “We were concerned that they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with their sponsors because of the coronavirus. There’s no way you can maintain social distance in a balloon basket.”
Both Gerharz and Lanning said the committee discussed ways to carry on the event, but with social distancing guidelines, the Creston Community High School marching band could not perform. Enforcing a 6-foot social distancing guideline between people gathered at night glow, pet show, tractor pull and vendor market would also be challenging for the volunteer committee.
Gerharz said the FFA’s requirement to follow the CDC’s social distancing guideline also made it so the committee was unable to find a place for the balloonists to hold their pre-flight meetings. In previous years, the balloonists have met in a hangar at Creston Municipal Airport, but the hangars are not large enough to maintain their distance as required.
“I know there are people that say, ‘I don’t care if we have social distancing,’ but for us to follow the FAA guidelines, we have to care,” said Gerharz.
“We certainly wouldn’t have wanted the responsibility that if something happened, and we had an outbreak in Union County, and they said ‘Well, it was due back to the crowds at Balloon Days,’ ... that’s the last thing we want to be responsible for,” said Lanning.
Nearly every ballooning event is cancelled this year, even the state’s largest – the National Balloon Classic, held annually in Indianola.
“The fact that more and more events are getting cancelled in the balloon world made us think, ‘Oh my gosh, what makes us think we’ll be different,” said Gerharz.
Gerharz said there will be somewhat of an impact on various restaurants and other businesses that cater to guests that are passing through the area, but as the virus remains a concern in the ballooning community and among the public, they chose to err on the side of safety.
“If we tried to do it on a scaled-down thing, it would not be the event any of us would have been proud of and I think it could have been more long term damage to the event than a one year cancellation,” said Lanning.