Memphis in May 2020 events canceled because of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; 2021 festival dates announced

Memphis in May 2020 events canceled because of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; 2021 festival dates announced

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For the first time in its 44-year history, Memphis in May International Festival is canceled.

The 2020 festival events were already postponed until Sept. 30 through Oct. 23 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which organizers said is the reason for its official cancellation.

“The difficult decision was made based on information in consultation with local health officials who advised that it would not be reasonable to host festival events as planned in 2020,” reads the announcement. “Our board of directors met this morning and voted to cancel the 2020 events.”

Leaders said Thursday the event would’ve been difficult to hold this fall anyway.

Only four of the nine headliners for Beale Street Music Festival were still on tap to perform. Both the music festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest are known for packing thousands of people into Tom Lee Park. Big crowds these days in the age of COVID-19 are a no-no.

“Since we postponed since the pandemic all the touring artists have slowly stopped touring,” said Randy Blevins, Vice-President of Programming & Marketing with Memphis in May, “Could you imagine trying to social distance in a barbecue cooking tent? It would make it very problematic and also unsafe as we know it.”

Public health officials said Thursday large festivals in the area are not advisable for 2020 and likely into a portion of 2021. Those hosting any event would be required to adhere to laid out social distancing protocols.

“With festivals and other things like Memphis in May and other large gatherings particularly when there’s music, there might be alcohol involved. And people are very mobile and tend to stay for a long period of time,” said Dr. Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department director. “The festival holder has to make a decision that they can meet the requirements we are going to set forth and whether it’s economically feasible for them to carry the event out.”

Memphis in May says their 2019 festival had an economic impact of $149.1 million with $4.6 million in direct tax revenue.

"It's a big deal. it's a big economic blow for the city piled on everything else with COVID-19, which is a reason why we gave it an extra try," said Blevins.

“The health and safety of festival goers and visitors is the top priority for both Memphis in May and Memphis Tourism. While we are currently welcoming visitors to Memphis, large scale gatherings are unable to move forward at this point in time. It is encouraging that Memphis in May leadership is making plans for the 45th annual Memphis in May festival in 2021,” said Kevin Kane, President and CEO of Memphis Tourism.

Organizers said they are disappointed in the cancellation but the health and safety of their patrons and participants is their top priority.

“The annual Memphis in May is an important part of the cultural fabric of our city, but this pandemic has impacted large scale public events worldwide and Memphis is no exception,” said James L. Holt, president and CEO of Memphis in May International Festival.

Ticket holders, teams and registrants can receive a full refund or opt to use their tickets or entries for the 2021 festival. Participants will receive an email early next week with information or can visit for details.

While the 2020 festival is off, plans for the 2021 festival are full steam ahead. Organizers released a schedule of events for the 45th annual Memphis in May.

  • Beale Street Music Festival -- April 30 through May 2
  • Salute to Ghana -- May 1 through 31
  • World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest -- May 12 through 15
  • Great American River Run -- May 29
Memphis in May BBQ contest competitors feed families during pandemic

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