That’s not to say we’re turning the clock back to 2019: The Independence Day parade downtown is canceled, some popular movie series now require advance registration to limit crowds, and it’s going to be a while before we see bands taking the stage of D.C.’s best-known music venues. But we’re definitely feeling more positive than last summer.
If you’re lucky enough to see your favorite singer or band this summer, it will probably be at an outdoor venue or festival, not a downtown club. The reasons: science and safety. Experts have long said that the coronavirus doesn’t spread as easily outdoors as it does in less-ventilated indoor spaces. The governors of Virginia and Maryland showed a willingness to allow higher capacity at outdoor venues earlier in the spring, while continuing to restrict attendance at indoor events.
“The momentum made it pretty clear that it was going to be all right to book outdoors at full capacity,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, the communications director for IMP Productions, which includes the 9:30 Club, the Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Bookers began putting concerts on Merriweather’s calendar, beginning with the annual M3 heavy metal festival, which takes over the Columbia amphitheater for three days during Independence Day weekend. Meanwhile, nightclubs in Washington were completely in the dark about when they’d be able to reopen for full capacity, making it much more difficult for smaller touring acts to plan their return to the road.
Wolf Trap, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, has filled its schedule with a mix of locally based acts, such as the National Symphony Orchestra (“A Celebration of Wolf Trap” on July 1, then July 7-8) and go-go legends Big Tony and Trouble Funk (July 18), with New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 17) and a solo performance by soulful singer-songwriter Amos Lee (July 21-22).
Despite the lifting of restrictions allowing higher capacity indoors, some venues are sticking with their outdoor focus. In late May, Strathmore unveiled its Patio Stage, an outdoor pavilion with 124 socially distanced seats. Customers are required to purchase all four seats at a table — up to $232 total — to see the Lone Bellow (June 17) or Dar Williams (July 3), but it’s working, as those shows are already sold out. Strathmore has just three indoor shows planned this summer, all of which are in August, compared with three to five outdoor shows each week through Labor Day.
Jazz lovers are well catered to over the next few months: The Lake Arbor Jazz Fest, previously a one-day event, has become a five-week series at National Harbor with concerts on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through July, with a range of artists including Cindy Bradley and Jazmin Ghent (July 3), Avery Sunshine (July 25) and the String Queens (July 29), performing in a large tent. The DC JazzFest, which went all-virtual in 2020, is making an in-person comeback at the Wharf between Sept. 1 and 5, with a mix of in-person concerts and streamed performances, though full lineups haven’t been announced yet.
Free outdoor concerts
Summer concert season was hit hard by the coronavirus last year, but it looks to come roaring back to parks and amphitheaters this summer. Just look at Fairfax County, where the schedule includes more than 100 concerts at 10 different parks, beginning July 7, including shows just for kids on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
The jam-packed schedule at Arlington’s wooded Lubber Run Amphitheater features different acts on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday mornings from July 9 to Aug. 15. (Guess which time slot is for the family performances.) Quiet Waters Park has music just off the South River in Annapolis on Saturday nights, starting July 17 with the Naval Academy’s Blues and Gold blues band. The Reston Community Center organizes concerts at various venues around town Thursdays through Sundays.
Of course, music is coming from more than just parks: The Wharf has bands on the Transit Pier every Wednesday night, and fans can grab takeout meals from nearby restaurants or order a margarita from the outdoor bar before settling in at tables or benches. Bethesda has live bands at its downtown streetery on Norfolk Avenue on Friday evenings, making for an easy date night: Just pick up takeout from a nearby restaurant and find a table. National Harbor presents a different military band, such as the Air Force’s Airmen of Note, at its waterfront National Plaza every Saturday through the end of August, and also on select Wednesdays.
Over the past year, music fans in Virginia have come to rely on free parking lot concerts hosted by Jammin Java and the State Theatre, two music venues that shifted operations outdoors. While both will continue to focus on alfresco shows for the next few months — Jammin Java has 19 free outdoor shows on the calendar in July, versus five paid indoor concerts — Jammin Java co-owner Daniel Brindley says that they will be “winding down outdoor shows for the season toward end of summer, and transitioning more and more shows back inside. Honestly, we love doing the outdoor shows and hope to continue them when possible in the future, but of course our bread-and-butter are proper, indoor, ticketed shows.”
Sitting on a blanket and watching movies under the stars is a favorite pastime in the summer, and it’s making a comeback after a year of socially distanced drive-in events. Still, the experience might be a little different: Instead of just heading to the National Building Museum’s west lawn after work to claim a patch of grass and watch “Tenet” (June 15) or “Starship Troopers” (June 22) as part of the “Can I Kick It?” series, movie fans have to RSVP a week in advance or risk being turned away. The Wharf’s Thursday night Sunset Cinema, which runs through early September, also requires guests to preregister to watch “Bohemian Rhapsody” (June 24) or “The Goonies” (July 8) for free on a 20-foot screen on a waterfront pier.
That won’t be the case everywhere — National Harbor’s “Movies on the Potomac” series, which runs through the end of June, is a first-come, first-seated event. Pick up dinner at a nearby restaurant and head for the waterfront plaza to watch Aretha Franklin in “Amazing Grace” (June 17) or “Big Eyes” (June 24).
No outdoor film series captures the zeitgeist like Films at the Stone, a monthly series at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial featuring “stories of individuals who, against all odds, fought for what was right.” The free Films at the Stone — the only outdoor movies on the National Mall — begins June 17 with “One Night in Miami,” followed by “The Princess and the Frog” on July 15 and “Black Panther” on Aug. 19.
Pools and water parks
For much of 2020, we missed the chance to cool off outside. D.C.’s outdoor pools were shuttered. No children shrieked under the giant dumping bucket at Ocean Dunes Waterpark. Six Flags America opened for a shortened season, and when crowds returned this spring, they weren’t queuing up to ride the Joker’s Jinx coaster, but to get vaccinated at Maryland’s largest mass vaccination center. However, we’re all looking forward to a much more refreshing summer.
D.C.’s outdoor pools, currently open on weekends, go to a six-day-per-week schedule on June 28. Don’t miss the pool at the newly renovated Woody Ward Recreation Center in Southeast, and an outdoor pool is scheduled to open at Hearst Park, in Cleveland Park, later this summer. The city’s splash parks, including a brand-new one next to the playground at the Eastern Market Metro Park, are open daily through Labor Day.
Policies will vary around the region, so double-check before you head out. Prince George’s County’s pools, which are weekend-only until June 16, require advance reservations — no drop-ins — and certain features, such as tube-style slides and climbing walls, are off limits. The Chesapeake Bay-themed Our Special Harbor sprayground at Lee District Park is limiting capacity and not allowing large group reservations. (The Fairfax County park, currently open only on weekends, begins daily operations on June 14.) The Water Mine in Reston is restricting the number of people floating in the lazy river, and creating one-way traffic patterns.
But elsewhere, things seem normal: Giant waterslides and the wave pool at Six Flags’ Hurricane Harbor are open, and summer season began Memorial Day weekend at Ocean Dunes and its four sister water parks across Northern Virginia. In a sign of the times, Splashdown Waterpark, in Manassas, is finally opening for the season this weekend — the park’s Facebook page said that it wasn’t able to open for Memorial Day because “we still need lifeguards.”
The Millennium Stage outdoors
The Kennedy Center officially begins its 50th anniversary season in September, but you don’t have to wait that long to enjoy free music and performing arts along the Potomac River. Themed three-day “mini-festivals” are taking over the Reach’s outdoor plaza and the Victura Park pop-up wine garden every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Oct. 2. A variety of groups are involved in organizing the events, including the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (June 24-26), the Intertribal Native American Dance Circle (July 8-10) and Step Afrika! (Aug. 12-14).
Each festival brings different events, such as DJs, live performances, film screenings and artisan markets, though there are some commonalities, including Saturday morning yoga sessions and dance classes. Advance registration is required, and opens on the Friday before each event begins. (For example, sign-up for the events of June 17-19, honoring World Refugee Day, opens June 11.) However, reserving a ticket doesn’t guarantee access to the site — capacity may be limited, so admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. Also, even if an event is “sold out” in advance, walk-up tickets may be available if the Reach is not at capacity.
The reopening of the National Museum of Natural History
As Smithsonian museums reopened briefly in 2020, closed, and then announced a staggered reopening in 2021, one question kept popping up: What’s happening with the National Museum of Natural History? The Smithsonian’s most popular museum, which drew 4.8 million visitors in 2019, was conspicuous in its absence from announcements until late May, when it was revealed that it will reopen on June 18.
As at other Smithsonian facilities, capacity will be limited to about 25 percent, and masks and timed-entry tickets will be required. Major exhibits, including the fossil hall with its 66-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex; the Hope Diamond; and the timely — and recently updated — “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World” are all ready for the public. Tickets can be claimed on si.edu/visit on June 11, and then up to 30 days in advance.
The closure of the National Museum of Women in the Arts
Just as Washington’s museums are finally reopening, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is set to close Aug. 9 for two years of renovations that the museum says will enlarge galleries, add new lighting and climate control, add touch-screen technology, and reimagine the storage spaces. The museum plans to keep up the online programming that it has presented over the past year, such as virtual exhibit tours, happy hours, book clubs and discussions with artists. But that’s months away: Right now, you can see textile artist Sonya Clark’s “Tatter, Bristle, and Mend” (through June 27) and photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s evocative “Girlhood” (through Aug. 8.) Admission is free on the twice-monthly Community Day, next held on June 20 and July 4.
Worries about large crowds canceled most local fireworks displays in 2020, and the effects of the coronavirus are being felt this summer, too: The National Park Service announced the cancellation of the National Independence Day Parade back in April. Takoma Park has canceled both its parade and fireworks. Rockville’s celebration isn’t happening. Neither is Gaithersburg’s.
But there will still be fireworks over the National Mall this year. Around the area, there are still things to do: Annapolis is throwing one of the biggest celebrations in the region — a four-day event featuring tours of Revolution-era houses, tall ships, an arts festival and live music, dining and dancing in closed downtown streets. The main events are a parade to the City Dock on July 3, and fireworks accompanied by the Navy Jazz Band on July 4.
The City of Fairfax stretches the festivities over two days: A parade with marching bands and inflatable balloons on July 3, and a concert and fireworks on July 4. Leesburg begins July Fourth with a parade through downtown at 10 a.m. and caps the day with live music and fireworks in Ida Lee Park. Mount Vernon — one of the few places to offer fireworks last year — doubles down in 2021, with patriotic music and fireworks on both June 26 and 27, and then hosts “An American Celebration” on July 4, with daytime fireworks, live music and a meet-and-greet with George Washington.
Some of Washington’s most beloved summer events aren’t happening in-person this year — the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is taking place virtually from June 25 to 27, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All is on hold until next year. (To get your live Shakespeare fix, head to Olney Theatre Center, where the National Players are putting on a free outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on the weekends of July 2-4 and 9-11.)
One D.C. tradition that is happening, however, is the Lotus and Waterlily Festival at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, from July 8 to 31. While the opening ceremony and guided tours are going virtual, the park itself will be open to see the magnificent pink and white flowers in bloom. As a bonus, the gardens are extending hours until 8 p.m. on Friday nights, which sounds much more pleasant than visiting on a sweltering weekend afternoon. Look for food trucks on Fridays, but bring your own refillable water bottles.
Monster trucks, pig races, demolition derbies, a midway filled with rides and carnival games — there’s nothing like a county fair. Most of the region’s fairs are back this summer: Loudoun from July 28-Aug. 1; Howard from Aug. 7-14; Montgomery and Prince William both from Aug. 13-21; Arlington from Aug. 18-22; Prince George’s from Sept. 9-12; D.C. on Sept. 12; Anne Arundel from Sept. 15-19; and Frederick from Sept. 17-25.
Expect some changes: The Montgomery fair, which the state says is “the largest agricultural county fair in Maryland,” has adopted new procedures, including moving most livestock exhibits and shows under tents with no walls to encourage air flow, and having 95 percent of all dining outdoors.
The D.C. State Fair, which puts an urban twist on the experience with awards for poetry, murals and community gardens in additions to best jellies or biggest vegetables, is offering a mix of in-person activities at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and virtual programs. “We wanted to accommodate the various levels of comfort people will have as we come out of covid so we could ensure a safe and enjoyable event for everyone,” says Erin Looney, the fair’s communications chair.