By Meredith Hughes

We have no Balloon Fiesta this year, yet another casualty of the pandemic which had been fairly well beaten back in New Mexico —until it no longer was.

Ironically, the Balloon Fiesta Park field has been functioning busily for some time as a drive-up COVID-19 testing site via Presbyterian, which typically can do about 800 tests per day. Yet it was so overwhelmed July 3, with cars backed up onto San Mateo by 11 a.m., that Presbyterian closed up early. Normally, the site is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. To be certain of hours call 841-1234.

The testing site issue was just one of many tackled by those guiding the non-profit Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in recent weeks. It posted the fiesta postponement notice on its website June 22, stating, “This year we were prepared to host more than 600 pilots, facilitate 1,657 RV reservations, coordinate with hundreds of sponsors, support more than a thousand volunteers, order 230,000 pieces of merchandise, as well as work with entertainers and concessionaires.”

“It’s an extensive process that requires a lot of planning. If we were to move forward with these steps, and in the end not be able to have an event in October, it would put the event and organization in a very vulnerable position.”

Corrales’ Matt Guthrie, chairman of the all-volunteer, 24-person fiesta board, supported by a year-round staff of 20, said in a recent interview that “multiple scenarios were considered,” during many meetings.

The first was to go “all-in,” as usual, but “as things tightened we looked at a second scenario, or Balloon Fiesta Light.”

This version of the event would have limited everything —balloons, spectators, and vendors, operating with strict directional traffic guidelines, eliminating music events, chain saw carving and similar, as well as buffet food operations. As Guthrie pointed out, the park is big enough that traffic could well have been contained.

Then came scenario C, Cyber Fiesta. “No guests, only 200 “local” balloons, but even this would have been dependent on finding safe lodging for visitors….” This might have made many happy, Guthrie noted, “As people here like saying, it’s October, and look at all the balloons in the air!” But, this “Mecca of world balloonists” surely would have been constrained by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s July 1 amendment to the state public health order requiring interstate and overseas travelers to self-isolate or self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival in New Mexico.

So then, inevitably, the decision to postpone —not cancel, but postpone. Why that word choice? Because the fiesta thus will take place in 2021, keeping the numbering accurate, according to Guthrie.The 50th anniversary celebration will then be held, one assumes, in 2022.

Fiesta organizers point out that “all 2020 tickets purchased whether General Admission, Park & Ride, Gondola Club, Chasers Club, Concierge or Glamping will be valid at Balloon Fiesta 2021, scheduled to take place October 2-10.”
Also, all RV reservations in place for 2020 will be honored in 2021. Visitors who cannot attend the 2021 event but hold bookings for 2020 can contact balloons@balloonfiesta.com or call 821-1000 for assistance.

An odd plus for collectors of fiesta patches and gear is that items purchased back in January for this year’s expected event, are for sale online, at balloonfiestastuff.com. True collectors find value in objects slated to be released in conjunction with an event on a certain date, that does not then materialize.

You must create an account, log in, purchase, and then either drive to the Fiesta Office at 4401 Alameda for pickup, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4, or the event’s staff will mail your items to you.

Aside from the loss to New Mexico of tourism revenue generated by close to 900,000 visitors, this decision impacts the event’s loyal vendors, many of whom count on Balloon Fiesta sales to keep their businesses going. Guthrie believes some already have run out of the revenue that the fiesta typically would refresh. Fiesta decision-makers stated online that “we know that there is an entire community, city and state invested in [the Balloon Fiesta’s] success, making this the most difficult decision we’ve ever faced as an organization.”

Corrales balloonist and longtime volunteer Steve Komadina said “There really was no other decision that could have been made in an extraordinary time.  Regardless of what the government has said, it was the right thing to do for the safety of the pilots, crews, spectators and sponsors.  Looking forward to return to normal next year,  if the virus is tamed.”

Former Corrales Mayor Scott Kominiak responded, “Not much choice this  year since the essence of the event is massive crowds enjoying the show.  Looking forward to next year.”

Corrales pilot Bill Dickey summed it up this way: “I am glad the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta had the courage to do the right thing. We have been flying in the fiesta for the last 40 years, and involved for 48 years.  We will really miss having it this year.  But, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.” Village Administrator Ron Curry, who pilots the 770 KOB balloon, weighed in, too. “Right call all around. I hope the idea of a pop-up fiesta does not happen.  It could create issues for us all. We all can still drink Gruet!”

And there is this positive note: a drive-in movie theater is going in now in the south parking lot of Balloon Fiesta field. Installed by Pop Up Movies of America, the theater will accommodate a maximm of 500 cars, due to social distancing, and likely will show the film Back to the Future first.

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