Canceling Atlanta Pride festival is “ultimately a public health decision,” says executive director

"We have to do what is best for our community," said director Jamie Fergerson in an emailed statement

A float from a previous Atlanta Pride parade

Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Pride Committee

Reaction was swift on Wednesday as the Atlanta Pride Committee took to social media to announce, due to spiking Covid-19 rates as the delta variant continues running rampant through the state, it would cancel its large in-person events scheduled for October 9 and 10, including the festival in Piedmont Park and its popular parade, for the second year in a row.

In a video posted on Atlanta Pride Committee’s Facebook page, executive director Jamie Fergerson said, “Though we’ve been working all year to plan a safe, in-person celebration, and as much as we want to get together, we know that with the delta surge, gathering together right now is just not safe for the community we love. With Covid cases increasing ten-fold in Georgia since July 1, along with the overwhelm of our local hospital systems, the city of Atlanta has also maintained its moratorium on events of over 50,000 people. With our sold-out marketplace, parade, and VIP tent, along with our general attendees, we know that our attendance would be higher than that number.” According to Fergerson, the Atlanta Pride Committee filed its permit applications back in March, but due to the traditional size of the festival, it falls under the city’s current moratorium.

In a written statement posted on the Atlanta Pride website, the committee added: “The Board of Directors along with the Executive Director, Jamie Fergerson, consulted with Atlanta Pride Medical Directors, Dr. Jason Schneider, and Dr. Eliot Blum, as well as renowned and internationally respected public health expert Dr. Carlos Del Rio, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaders of local hospital systems, and other public health officials. After these consultations a review of public health data and confirming the City of Atlanta’s moratorium on issuing Class A permits, the organization made the difficult decision to cancel the 2021 Atlanta Pride Festival and Parade.”

Sharing the announcement on Facebook, Atlanta drag performer Phoenix, who spends months each year helping to coordinate Pride’s popular Starlight Cabaret drag show in Piedmont Park posted, “Beyond Furious. If you haven’t been vaccinated get the [expletive] off my page. At this point, YOU and your RIDICULOUS conspiracies are the reason the world can’t move forward.”

Below the Atlanta Pride announcement, longtime LGBTQ+ photographer Russell Bowen-Youngblood posted, “I am torn on this decision. I am sure there will be an abundance of events that weekend . . . But will any other demographic be as vaxed as the LGBTQ community?”

Almost simultaneously on Wednesday, Out on Film festival director Jim Farmer unveiled the LGBTQ+’s film festival’s 34th annual film lineup, scheduled for September 23 to October 3. The hybrid plan will combine in-person screenings at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and Out Front Theatre with virtual events. The week-long film festival has for years served as the city’s annual opening act for Pride each fall.

In an email to Atlanta magazine Thursday, Farmer wrote: “Based on a few in-person film screenings that we have been part of, we decided to host a hybrid festival this year with a limited schedule in our venues [and a] virtual event. In-theater events will be [socially] distanced, and vaccinations will be required of all our attendees. Everyone wants to return to live events, but the safety of our patrons, staff, and volunteers is the top priority. If we realize a few weeks down the line that physical events can’t work, we will be able to return to all-virtual programming. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that organizations have to learn to adapt.”

Some upset Pride attendees took to Facebook to ask why other large Piedmont Park events, such as the Atlanta Jazz Festival (September 5 and 6) and Music Midtown (September 18 and 19), are still scheduled to move forward. But these events are not apples-to-apples comparisons. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, the 49th annual Atlanta Pride weekend attracted approximately 300,000 attendees. That same year, Music Midtown drew an estimated 50,000 and, unlike Pride, is a gated and ticketed event. This year, Music Midtown attendees will be required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test within 72 hours of the festival. Like Pride, the Atlanta Jazz Festival is a free event in Piedmont Park that could draw as many as 100,000 attendees to the park. The event is still planned for Labor Day weekend, with organizers posting the festival’s Covid-19 safety plans—masks and social distancing are strongly encouraged—to Facebook on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the city’s annual Black Pride celebration, also scheduled for Labor Day weekend at venues across the city, including its September 5 Pure Heat Community Festival in Piedmont Park, remains an in-person event, according to the Black Pride website. The city’s queer-friendly Dragon Con is also scheduled to move forward on Labor Day weekend, but as a scaled back, mask-mandated event with proof of vaccination or negative Covid test result for all conventioneers. Earlier this month, Dragon Con organizers announced the con would restrict its annual parade to just registered convention-goers, and organizers are encouraging fans to watch it live on CW 69 or on the Dragon Con YouTube channel.

Prior to the Covid surge in recent weeks, Atlanta Pride organizers had remained upbeat about returning to an in-person celebration this year, even touting the bookings of performers Big Freedia and Todrick Hall on the Pride Piedmont Park stage.

In an email to Atlanta Thursday, Midtown Alliance director of member engagement Philip Rafshoon said, “Atlanta Pride is one of Midtown and the whole city’s largest celebrations. While we are all disappointed that it is not happening again this year, we respect the Atlanta Pride Committee’s decision. While we can’t put a number on the financial impact, we know that Pride is a major economic generator for restaurants, hotels, shops and so many other businesses in and around Midtown, who spend months planning ahead for the crowds that come in for the weekend’s celebrations. This is another reason that we encourage you to support Midtown businesses who are there for us every week of the year.”

In a follow-up email to Atlanta Thursday, Atlanta Pride Committee executive director Jamie Fergerson stressed that the decision to cancel remained the best option given the current pandemic situation. “Canceling this year’s Festival and Parade is heartbreaking, but it is also unquestionably the right decision based on public health guidance, along with taking care of our already over-burdened healthcare system and schools. I’m incredibly grateful for my team and their efforts to both plan this event for as long as we could and to close it out in a responsible way.”

Fergerson added, “Since the announcement, multiple heathcare experts and leaders have thanked us for making this decision. Ultimately, it is a public health decision, and we have to do what is best for our community.”