Bath Heritage Days, known largely for its Independence Day parade, is taking this year off due to the coronavirus pandemic. File

TOPSHAM — A mock Topsham Fair program cover sports a unique look that could only reflect the strange times caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“See you August 10-15, 2021,” the top reads, noting the 166th annual event’s cancellation this August in order to prevent the spread of the virus during the heavily-attended week-long celebration of Maine’s agricultural heritage.

And below that, something a little comical: a cow, sporting the protective face mask now familiar to public life, uttering “HOLY COW-RONA!”

A mock Topsham Fair program book cover offers a lighter perspective amid the pandemic. Courtesy Marilyn Hunter

It’s a lighter message amid often heavy-hearted times. With cancellation as well in recent weeks of Bath Heritage Days and the Yarmouth Clam Fest, both multi-day events held in July, this summer is shaping up to be a particularly quiet one during the state’s traditional peak tourist season.

Heritage Days has a roughly $80,000 budget, and while it had once served as a fundraiser, rising expenses have caused it to break about even in recent years, according to Amanda McDaniel, executive director of the Main Street Bath organization.

Still, “we expected there to be some funding from it, and every little bit does count,” she said. If Heritage Days were to net a few thousand dollars, “it’s still a few thousand dollars lost.”

This year’s need to cancel was particularity disappointing to her, because July 4 falls on a Saturday, and good weather would likely have assured strong attendance at the Independence Day parade.

Heritage Days usually draws between 20,000-30,000 people, McDaniel said. For Main Street Bath, it’s “a huge opportunity to showcase the beautiful city to a crowd of people that may not otherwise stop. When you see the Ferris wheel right next to Route 1, you can’t help but say ‘oh my gosh, there’s something going on.'”

The event has become “so deep in people’s hearts, that they’re really devastated by not having that to look forward to.”

The impact on businesses is mixed, McDaniel explained: “Some businesses really dislike it because they feel like they don’t have clear access to their customers, or their customers avoid town because it’s too congested.” Some restaurants enjoy the added downtown foot traffic, she added, but others see competition from the food trucks along the carnival midway.

Adrienne Nardi, executive director of the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce, has seen similar mixed reactions during the Clam Festival, which draws about 80,000-85,000 people and about 135 craft vendors.

“Historically, a lot of the businesses have actually closed for the weekend because of Clam Festival,” given the congestion along Main Street, she said. But other restaurants and lodging establishments stand to lose out on the extra people that would have been in the area.

While rain has caused temporarily safety closures in past year, this marks the first time the entire event has been closed down, Nardi said.

Revenue from the event is important to budgets of the 30-plus nonprofit organizations that appear at the festival, and “for us, it’s probably a good half” of the chamber’s annual revenue, she said, not disclosing what that means in dollars.

The chamber is looking into having T-shirts made to raise funds for those organizations in lieu of the merchandise they would have sold. The theme might be a little playful, saying that the clams got the summer off, Nardi said.

One factor behind the chamber’s decision to to cancel was a lack of desire to seek all-essential sponsorships from local businesses, who were already hurting from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, Nardi said.

The Topsham Fair could have gone on this year without the roughly $10,000 in sponsorships it gets for books, flyers and fireworks, since “we were … very mindful of asking anyone for money at this point,” said Marilyn Hunter, the event’s director of entertainment and marketing. But the uncertainty behind when the state’s ban on large gatherings would be lifted ultimately caused this year’s event to be shelved.

“People are really disappointed,” Hunter said. “It’s not just our fair; people are seeing all their favorite summer activities canceled.”

The fair draws between 20,000-27,000 people. Its earnings go back into the Fairgrounds, owned by the nonprofit Sagadahoc Agricultural & Horticultural Society, “but mostly it’s our job to support agriculture,” such as by offering cash prizes for fair participants like farmers, gardeners and harness horse racers, Hunter said.

She is most concerned about the vendors, for whom food trucks may be set up at the Fairgrounds sometime this summer to help generate revenue.

The fair has only been canceled once before, in 1944 during World War II, due to a lack of manpower to run the event, she said. The Cumberland Fair, which draws at least 70,000 and is going into its 149th year, has been canceled three times, according to Liz Tarantino, the event’s secretary and entertainment director; one of those times was during the last pandemic: the Spanish Flu.

“We’re really in a holding pattern right now” about whether to hold the fair in late September, and waiting for further information from Gov. Janet Mills, Tarantino said. She expects a determination to be made within the month, “but for the moment we are cautiously planning ahead.”

Meanwhile, Hunter is optimistic that 2021 will bring a more normal summer for Maine. Next year’s Topsham Fair will also be called the 166th annual, and she’s planning for flowers instead of face masks on the fair book cover.

“Same cow, happier picture,” Hunter said.

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