It was mere days before one of the biggest events on Tucker’s social calendar. Competitors had bought their beef, beans and any number of other ingredients. Organizers had the bands lined up, the stage ready to go, tents purchased. And participants were starting to feel that rumble of hunger deep within their collective stomachs. Then it all came to a screeching halt.
“We had ordered hand sanitizer units and handwashing stations not really knowing what to expect,” recalled Luis Finley, a member of the Old Town Tucker Merchants Association (OTTMA), which organizes the Tucker Chili Cookoff. “Days before the Chili Cookoff, as we watched more cases being reported, schools starting to close, and then major league sports postponing/cancelling games and events, we knew it was time to cancel.”
Finley and his team of volunteers had the distinct misfortune of scheduling their signature event on March 14, during the very weekend when the whole of American society shut down for the COVID pandemic. At the time, before “coronavirus” was a household term, there was no shortage of opinions about the cancellation.
“Some people and restaurants had already made their chili. They were upset because they didn’t know what to do with five-to-ten gallons of chili,” Finley explained. “At this time, we didn’t know what this virus would bring so it was all cautionary. It seemed the majority of the community was on our side at the time, thinking we would be able to have the Chili Cookoff in the fall….I didn’t receive any calls personally, but I remember some people asking ‘why?’ almost like they were a little perturbed.”
Over the course of the year, Tucker Day was postponed, then cancelled. Movie on Main was nixed. The July 3 fireworks show had to go virtual. Every other major Tucker celebration was either reimagined or just shuffled off to 2021.
Now 2021 is upon us, the COVID vaccines are slowly rolling out and the cancellations are starting anew. For a second straight year, there will be no Tucker Chili Cookoff, at least not in March.
“At this point we still don’t think it is an appropriate time to host a large-scale event,” Finley explained. “If there were a Chili Cookoff and people were to catch COVID-19 from the event, it would damage the reputations of the City and all the businesses involved.”
With the Chili Cookoff postponed, attention now turns to Tucker Day. The event is held annually on the second Saturday in May and, because there’s no consensus about what the pandemic and the much-maligned vaccine rollout will look like at that point, there’s also no consensus about whether Tucker Day will be cancelled for a second straight year.
“We’re really taking this day-to-day,” said organizer Honey Van De Kreke. “I can’t tell you how I would hate to postpone from May as we did last year. We are all shaking our heads and trying to make the best decision. I wish there was another way to do Tucker Day other than face to face, but that’s the whole point.”
Tucker only has a small handful of events throughout the year that shut down Main Street. The Chili Cookoff and Tucker Day are two of the biggest, meaning they draw thousands of people from all over metro Atlanta. According to Discover DeKalb, the City’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, cancelling these types of events can have a sizable economic impact on the City.
“The regional reach of an event like Tucker Day is more significant than you might think,” said James Tsismanakis, Executive Director and CEO of Discover DeKalb. “When Tucker Day doesn’t happen, it means a huge opportunity lost for our restaurants and, believe it or not, there’s an impact on the hotels, as well. All of that tax revenue that would be pouring in from out-of-towners represents a very real, very tangible loss.”
Although many event organizers have been left with no choice but to cancel, others have pivoted, taking the proverbial lemons and turning them into lemonade.
Nancy Qarmout, head of the Tucker Farmers Market, is one such person. By its very nature, a farmers market is a big gathering of people, talking and interacting in relatively close quarters. Even though it is outdoors, it has the potential to be a COVID nightmare. Knowing this, Qarmout got an idea last spring of how to change up her business model and keep the market going.
“We converted the market to online ordering with drive-thru pickup to provide a safe way for the Tucker community to continue to connect with local farmers and producers,” Qarmout explained. “Spring and summer were extraordinary times. As the food chain struggled to keep up in our local grocery stores, our local farmers and producers were able to help fill the gap. COVID-19 has shed light on the value of our local food systems and led to a greater appreciation of them.”
Still other events, like the monthly Tucker Cruise-In, have struggled to find a way to get around the realities of the pandemic. The Cruise-In, which runs from April through October and features classic cars lining Main Street on the second Saturday of each month, is another event that is outdoors, yet puts hundreds of people in close contact as they admire one another’s vehicles.
“Some were pretty critical, but most understood the awkward position we were in,” said Cruise-In organizer Chip Cofer. “Postponing the Tucker Cruise-In was not an easy decision, but observing COVID safety measures is a must, especially on public property.”
One thing is for sure: as soon as it’s safe, Tucker’s Main Street parties will be back bigger and better than ever. For now, the waiting is the hardest part.