One year and more than a million coronavirus cases later in the Washington region, event organizers have created a hybrid festival that includes in-person and online events, as well as a nationally televised broadcast. Meanwhile, D.C. and federal officials hope to strike a balance between allowing struggling businesses to cash in on out-of-town visitors while preventing a repeat of uncontrolled flows of people who gathered around the Tidal Basin last year to ogle the pink blooms.
The message, officials said, is simple: safety first.
“We kept reevaluating every two months until it became obvious to us that we would not be able to have a normal festival,” said Diana Mayhew, president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “Our concerns are the concerns of everybody. There are still so many unknowns [about the coronavirus]. Safety is the most important thing.”
Despite repeated pleas from public officials to stay home and avoid gathering in crowds, scores of sightseers, joggers, amateur photographers, parents and their children, and tourists flooded the Tidal Basin last year to catch a glimpse of the famed cherry blossoms.
The National Park Service, which cares for the cherry trees and the federal land where they are rooted, is expected to announce crowd-control measures.
Jeffrey Reinbold, the Park Service’s superintendent for the National Mall, said in a virtual news conference that the government does “not want a repeat of last year, with large crowds down at the site.” The agency is considering alternatives that include allowing people to view the blooms during limited hours, metering the number of people allowed to roam the area at any time or closing off access to the Tidal Basin.
“We continue to evaluate what — if any — opportunities will be available to view the blossoms in person at the Tidal Basin,” Reinbold said. “The National Park Service and our cherry blossom partners are asking everyone to experience peak bloom virtually.”
The Park Service has predicted peak bloom, or the time at which more than 70 percent of the blossoms along the Tidal Basin have flowered, to occur between April 2 and April 5. The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang put its peak bloom forecast within the window of March 30 and April 3.
The Park Service will operate a live stream of the blossoms, dubbed the BloomCam, that will allow flower fans to witness the blooming from anywhere. Last year, Reinbold said, the BloomCam was viewed more than 750,000 times in 160 countries.
The Cherry Blossom Festival typically marks the start of tourism season in the District.
In 2019, D.C. marked its most lucrative tourism year ever, with a record 24.6 million visitors, according to the city’s tourism arm, Destination DC. Visitors spent $8.2 billion that year, the agency reported, generating $896 million in tax revenue and contributing to the creation of 78,266 jobs in the hospitality industry.
With rolling shutdowns and heightened anxieties about the pandemic, hotel revenue from mid-March through December last year sunk by 87 percent, according to Destination DC data.
As the pandemic began to hit the region last spring, Elliott Ferguson, president and chief executive of Destination DC, said he was hopeful the city would be able to start bouncing back by summer — or fall, at the latest.
“When that didn’t happen, my optimism turned to despair,” Ferguson said. “Now, my optimism is tied to the fact that we have three viable vaccines, we have an administration that is making vaccinations a priority and that the weather is getting nicer. . . . We know now that as long as you socially distance and wear a mask and follow [health] guidelines, there’s plenty of what D.C. has to offer that people can enjoy.”
The agency, which typically boosts its advertising to encourage visitors to travel to the District for cherry blossom season, said it’s staying away from that kind of messaging this year. But, Ferguson said, the city is not telling people to stay away either.
Several hotels have begun to advertise springtime and cherry blossom packages. More than 170 restaurants will offer cherry blossom food and drink specials — to eat in-house or to go.
“We recognize that millions of people come to Washington, D.C., for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and now is not the time to have millions of people come to D.C.,” Ferguson said. “But the reality is, the trees will still bloom, and this will be the beginning of the spring, and that gives people a feeling of wanting to do something different than being stuck at home.”
The Cherry Blossom Parade, a fixture of the festival that was canceled last year in light of the pandemic, was nixed again, Mayhew said, along with a number of other in-person gatherings.
Some, like the Pink Tie Party and annual kite fly held in celebration of the beginning of spring, have been transformed into do-it-from-home events that encourage participants to connect virtually while dressing up or fly a kite in their own backyard, Mayhew said.
The new Porch Parade will feature a series of 10 vehicles painted with floral patterns by local artists driving through neighborhoods in the D.C. region that decorate their front porches, windows, balconies and yards in theme for the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Neighborhoods with the highest density of participants who put up decorations and register online with the festival will get a visit from the cars, Mayhew said. She said she hopes the to-be-announced parade route will encourage friendly neighborhood competition.
All eight of the District’s wards, plus areas in Prince George’s County and Northern Virginia, will be included in the route, Mayhew said.
“Our hope is to infuse some visual delight into our neighborhoods and encourage people to decorate their homes so other people can enjoy each other at a distance and have something to share,” she said.
A television broadcast hosted by actress Drew Barrymore and put on by Events DC — which oversees the District’s convention center and tourism marketing — will be seen in the Washington region on April 10 and later on ABC affiliates across the country, said chief executive Greg O’Dell.
The broadcast will feature music performances and celebrity guests while spotlighting “D.C. springtime,” O’Dell said.
Organizers said there’s something lost when a festival goes virtual. This new normal, Mayhew said, often feels like anything but.
As the 2021 festival gets underway, organizers and D.C. officials already will be looking to next year, hoping that in 2022, the festival can return to full swing.
“We are hoping for that,” Mayhew said. “We hope for that for the world.”