In less than a week, tens of thousands of visitors — both vaccinated and unvaccinated against COVID-19 — are expected to converge in and around Santa Fe for in-person Native arts markets that were canceled last year as the coronavirus pandemic raged across the country.
The three events — the Santa Fe Indian Market, Free Indian Market and the Pathways Native Arts Festival — together will be among the largest public gatherings the city and the neighboring pueblo of Pojoaque are poised to host since the pandemic thrust Northern New Mexico’s coveted tourism industry into a tailspin.
The markets are generating a mix of familiar anticipation and new apprehension, in large part because cases of COVID-19 — fueled by the menacing delta variant — are growing fast in New Mexico, raising fears the weekend could become a superspreader event.
The three Native markets soon will be followed by the Sept. 3 burning of Zozobra, where, unless the science and government officials say otherwise, some 40,000 revelers are expected to crowd into Fort Marcy Ballpark.
Though all four events are implementing COVID-safe protocols to try to protect the public, experts say danger lurks.
“We all know that larger gatherings are higher risk,” Dr. David Scrase, the state’s human services secretary and acting secretary of the Department of Health, said during a news conference last week in which he and the state epidemiologist warned of an alarming rate of infections.
“Absolutely no question that if you have a big gathering with lots of people that are less than 6 feet apart, the risk goes up,” he said.
Huge relief, huge challenge
Though the markets are less than a week away, organizers say the situation remains fluid.
“Since we decided to even have an Indian Market, every week is a different week,” said Kim Peone, executive director of the Southwestern Association of Indian Art, which oversees the event.
In February, when mass gathering and other state-mandated restrictions were in place, organizers discussed having just a small event on the Plaza.
“Our benchmark day was April 1,” Peone said. “As we moved closer to that day, we were seeing the opportunity of things starting to get better because of vaccinations, so this marker was changing.”
On April 15, organizers decided to push forward with Indian Market, but with just 500 booths.
The April decision was met with nervousness until the state opened back up for business as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifted New Mexico’s restrictions, some of the most stringent in the nation, on July 1.
“It was a huge relief, and it was a huge challenge at the same time,” Peone said. “What people don’t realize is that there’s a huge amount of planning that goes into this and just establishing everything that you need from a deadline perspective. We needed a hard number, so we’re grateful for the Free Indian Market and we’re grateful for Buffalo Thunder, who came alongside us and are doing these other events because it just allows them to capture artists where we couldn’t.”
This year marks the first time Indian Market will be a ticketed and fenced event — part of an effort to keep crowd sizes down. While Peone doesn’t know how many tickets have been sold so far, she said the event will be “fine” if 60,000 tickets are sold for each day.
“I think that number gives us an opportunity to do social distancing,” she said. “The space is going to be big enough to accommodate that. It’s just that people are really going to have to be cognizant of social distancing, and I think that’s really hard, especially when you’re dealing with people who come from other states where that’s maybe not a criteria anymore.”
Attendees will be encouraged, but not required, to wear face masks, though artists will be allowed to set their own parameters, such as making masks mandatory at their individual booths or prohibiting anyone from touching their art.
“We are giving our artists a full leisure to determine what’s safe for them,” Peone said. “We’re going to empower them in that and then just try to create a space that has some sort of controls in it so that people do not feel like there’s not control over social distancing for their own safety.”
Free Indian Market, which will host about 500 artist booths at Federal Park, has changed the event to an all-outdoor show due to rising COVID-19 cases, promoter Gregory Schaaf said.
“We wanted to have the safest show possible,” he said last week after announcing the change. “Not only because we wanted to uphold our commitment in getting this certified as a COVID-safe event but in keeping with our personal philosophy and commitment to the elders to protect everyone.”
At the Pathways Native Arts Festival in Pojoaque, masks will be required at all events during the three-day show, Karl Duncan, executive director of the Poeh Cultural Center, which is organizing the gathering, said Friday.
“We’re trying to do our best to utilize this event to bring awareness to wear masks, not only indoors but outdoors at events like these and, I hope, other events moving forward,” he said. “We also are providing a free public Pfizer vaccination clinic on Friday and Saturday at the event, open to the public.”
Asked whether she was concerned about a major outbreak, Peone said she can only hope it won’t happen. As long as public health orders from the state and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are followed, she said she is “very hopeful” organizers have done everything they can to create a safe environment for anyone who attends the event.
“I think that’s the only way I can answer that,” she said. “I have to be in this place of hope.”
‘COVID is the enemy’
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber calls the delta variant a “serious game changer” and said he has spoken to organizers of Indian Market and Zozobra about the situation.
Webber said he hasn’t encouraged the organizers to scale back their events. He said he’s mostly spoken with them about how they plan to keep people safe and is well versed in the precautions they plan to take.
Organizers, he said, are “very concerned” and “very, very committed” to preserving and protecting the public’s health and safety.
“This is not about the city,” Webber said. “This is about everybody involved, from the organizers to the state Department of Health to public health folks at the hospitals and in other parts of the community, where we’re very much keeping close tabs on what the delta variant is doing. There has to be a priority on health and safety.”
Webber urged members of the public to get vaccinated if they haven’t, wear masks and follow other public health guidelines to help prevent the spread of the virus.
With the delta variant, which is now the predominant strain of the virus in the United States and nearly twice as contagious as previous variants, the enemy is showing no signs of slowing down.
“The delta variant,” Webber said, “is a very dangerous new part of the COVID pandemic.”
‘This is really, really difficult’
Scrase said some risk at high-attendance outdoor events can be mitigated.
“Let’s say you have 50,000 people at the burning of Zozobra but every single one of them is double-masked and they’re all standing quite a ways apart. I think the risk for a major outbreak is very low,” he said.
Double-masked? Social distancing at Zozobra?
For his part, Zozobra event organizer Ray Sandoval said the burning of Old Man Gloom remains on track. But the possibility of a virtual event like last year isn’t out of the question.
“This is going to be the most challenging event I’ve ever put on, and the reason is because we don’t know how many people are going to show up,” he said. “Do I order the 80 light towers that I normally have? Do I order 150 port-a-potties? This is really, really difficult.”
So far, more than 30,000 tickets have been purchased. Organizers switched vendors this year to allow buyers to purchase insurance on their tickets.
“We have about 10,000 tickets more to go before you hit that critical space where social distancing is no longer available,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval acknowledged crowd control inside the ballpark once the lights go down could prove challenging. In years past, revelers have crowded as close to Zozobra as possible.
“We’re still in stadium seating kind of mode, so when the lights go off, are people going to push forward? Yes,” Sandoval said. “I’m not going to be able to stop people from pushing forward.”
Sandoval said organizers are hoping only vaccinated individuals attend the event. While masks are not required, they are highly encouraged, he said.
“We feel like we’ve put in really good contingencies in place to watch different things,” he said. “But the science is really going to dictate that, and ultimately those decisions will be made very, very close to the event based on what the available science is and based on what recommendations from our health officials are.”
The event will be broadcast live on TV and online for free. Because Zozobra is a fundraising event for children’s charities, Sandoval said organizers hope people who watch the livestream will donate the price of a ticket at burnzozobra.com.
A series of COVID-safe protocols are planned at the event. Port-a-potties will be cleaned every 15 minutes, and 40 buckets of antibacterial wipes will be available at restrooms and food stations. Food vendors, as well as volunteers, will be required to be vaccinated, masked and gloved. Merchandise will be available but not within the public’s reach, part of an effort to minimize “as much human contact as possible,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval noted Zozobra was one of the few big events “to actually go forward” last year with more than 600 volunteers and no outbreak.
“Your first obligation is to make sure that people at your event are safe,” he said. “We’re going to follow the science all the way down. If the science tells us that we cannot have an open event, or we feel that the science is telling us that our event is going to cause harm to our community, then we will go to a completely virtual event.”