By Don Botch & Holly Herman
Reading Eagle / Saturday, March 14

A few days ago, Berks Jazz Fest General Manager John Ernesto issued a statement saying all systems were go for this year’s festival despite the coronavirus scare.

On Thursday morning, however, he saw the chips starting to fall in the opposite direction. And late Friday morning, realizing he had no choice, he announced that this year’s 30th anniversary festival, which had been set for March 27 through April 5, would be postponed until April 9-18, 2021.

Ernesto said the last few days have been a whirlwind the likes of which he’s never seen.

“I never dreamt we would run into a situation like this,” he said. “Obviously, it’s unprecedented. The whole industry is upside down right now. I’ve been talking to agents, managers, artists, and it’s just a whole new world. It’s chaos.

“I actually had an agent on the phone who was crying because their world is upside down. They’re trying to reschedule hundreds and hundreds of concerts, and without even knowing what’s coming down the road.”

Tour cancellations

Ernesto said push came to shove on Thursday while he, Berks Arts Council Executive Director Meggan Kerber and BAC Production Manager Gary Spencer were meeting with Reading Mayor Eddie Moran. Suddenly Ernesto’s phone started going off.

“The first call was Incognito — they’re based in the UK — and they canceled their tour,” he said. “So we were dealing with that, then the phone went off and it was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones canceling their tour. And then, within an hour, Brian Culbertson canceled his tour. So all of a sudden we’re sitting here (thinking) we’ve got to come up with a plan.”

While they might have liked to reschedule the festival for later this year, logistically, that was impossible due to coordinating schedules with hotels, artists and venues.

“So we decided to give up on 2020, get out of this current situation and just move the entire festival en masse to 2021,” Ernesto said. “It just makes sense.”

Artists returning

So far, he said, none of the artists have said they can’t come back next year.

“By making that decision, we were dealing with a pretty open canvas with the artists, because most haven’t booked April 2021 yet,” he said. “So we had a good shot at making this work.”

At times like this, he said, the relationships the festival has built over the past 30 years really pay off.

“We feel very fortunate that we have great relationships with artists, agents, managers, that everyone wants to work with us to help us piece this all together,” he said.

Tickets good for next year

He said ticket sales have been robust this year — well ahead of last year’s pace.

“We’re hoping our fans hold on to those tickets and just come to the festival next year,” he said. “Their tickets are good. If you have Chris Botti tickets, your tickets are good April 9, 2021. Brian Culbertson sold out for April 5. His show will be April 18 next year.”

He’s hopeful that the postponement won’t have a huge financial impact on the festival itself, even though it undoubtedly will impact the business community at large.

“We have loyal fans and they want to come, so they have the tickets already for the shows,” he said. “We’re hoping there’s minimal fallout for refunds. There’s going to be some. But we can put those tickets back in circulation and sell them between now and the festival next year.”

Ernesto said ticket refunds are available at point of purchase or at the Weidenhammer Box Office at Santander Arena, 700 Penn St., starting Wednesday.

Economic impact

The festival brings an estimated $6 million to $8 million in revenues to the local economy, Kerber said. It brings 35,000 tourists to Berks.

“We are sad that we can’t bring the festival to the community this year,” Kerber said. “This impacts the entire community, not just the organization. This brings tourists to small businesses, hotels and restaurants.”

Kerber said coronavirus virus has turned the industry upside down. She said the agency has already sold more tickets valued at over $700,000 for the 10-day show.

Kerber thanked the 300 volunteers for their dedication.

“It’s impossible to reschedule over 50 artists in a few months,” Kerber said.

Crystal Seitz, president of Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, said there is no reason to panic.

“Our hope is that the virus will be contained within the next month, and people will return to normalcy,” Seitz said. “Tourism in Berks County is essential to economic growth.”

Seitz said tourism is projected to be down during March, April and May, but hopefully it will be made up in the summer, noting the Kutztown Folk Festival and World War II Weekend at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum at the Reading Airport are major attractions.

Seitz recommended that patrons continue dining in small restaurants, noting that restaurants are vigilant about cleanliness.

Keith Mooney, president of the Berks Arts Council Board of directors, said the board has been meeting regularly since Wednesday to discuss what to do.

“The board’s decision to postpone the festival was not taken lightly,” Mooney said. “The festival is 10 days, and we have six or seven bands a day scheduled. This is not something that you can cancel for a few months.”

Mooney said that some bands have members in European countries that are banned from travel.

“We can’t just reschedule the festival in a few months,” Mooney said. “The government has recommended to ban events that have more than 250 people.”

Mooney said the board was left with nothing else to do than postpone the festival until next year.