The Inverness Cooter Festival will go on despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The popular city event that typically draws about 15,000 visitors from Citrus County and surrounding areas over three days, will be celebrated this year.
But event organizer Liz Fernley, director of Inverness’ events and marketing, told the Chronicle it will be scaled significantly back and reduced to a two-day event.
Fernley said the city made the decision a few weeks ago to hold the festival and it was important to bring some measure of normalcy back to people’s lives and celebrate Inverness.
“It’s about quality of life,” Fernley said. “We’re proud of everything Inverness has to offer.”
But given the health risks associated with the virus, “it inspired us to do things differently,” Fernley said.
City councilman Ken Hinkle said residents are yearning for some of the things they enjoyed before the virus’ onslaught.
“I think we’re doing it to let people get out of their homes and have something to do,” he told the Chronicle. “And it’s a local event.”
When speaking about upcoming city events, Councilwoman president Jacquie Hepfer said annual events are important to residents. Meanwhile, the city is working to rearrange festivals to keep people as safe as possible.
“We’re trying to give people some normalcy,” she said. “We’re trying (but) COVID-19 has rearranged every aspect of how we do things.”
Events such as these give people options rather than having to sit at home, she said.
This year’s Cooter Festival will be held at the Depot District and Liberty Park in Inverness.
Fernley said the city will try some new events to help replace ones that had to be canceled this year or modify some existing events.
■ The city will host Cooter Idol, a youth singing competition. While the city has hosted the event in the past, Fernley said this time the public will also have an opportunity to chime in and vote.
The event will have categories for ages 6-12 years and from 13-18 years old.
The event will be Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, at the Valerie Theatre. But the event will be closed to the public because of the coronavirus. Instead, the city will post a video of the event so the public can watch the contestants as often as they like and vote.
The number of participants in each category will be capped at 10 performers. A panel of judges will select winners. The winners will be announced at noon Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.
Winners in each category will receive $100 and the public’s choice winner will receive $100.
The performances will be taped and they will be available online.
“Because of COVID-19, not everyone will come to the festival, but still can feel a part of it,” Fernley said.
■ Also still on the events card will be Cooterween. The Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, event is a Halloween costume competition involving three categories for the age groups baby to 3 years old; 4 to 7 years old; 8 years old to 12; 13 to 19 years old; adults 20 years and older; and, also for pets.
The city will hand out ribbons for first-, second-, and third-place finishers.
The competition will be at the Depot pavilion, 300 N. Apopka Ave., Inverness. Registration begins at noon.
■ The city will also host the Cooter Softball Tournament from Oct. 19 to
Oct. 23, 2020.
The city’s recreational department (352-726-3913) is taking applications for teams and answering questions about the event.
The softball games leading up to Cooter Festival will be at Whispering Pines Park, 1700 Forest Drive, Inverness.
■ The city is also encouraging local businesses to offer customers Cooter Festival related specials to reflect the festive nature of the event.
You can go to Cooter
festival.com to see businesses participating in Cooter on the Town event specials.
■ The festival will also include about 40 vendors with a focus on local businesses hurt by the pandemic. Fernley said the focus is local in order to keep people safe and avoid traveling. There were about 80 vendors at the event a year ago.
Canceled this year are the carnival rides.
Fernley said the push behind the festival is creating a family friendly event that allows people to participate in the community as safely as possible and moving forward with life.
“It’s about living with it” as people go back to work and families try to regain a routine, she said.
Festival hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Typically, the festival is a three-day event and costs about $20,000 to host. This year its estimated to cost $3,500 to host. Two or three thousand people are expected.
The event is also meant to help local businesses and venders who have been hurt by the pandemic.
One of those vendors is Wildlife Rescue, which depends on festivals such as this to get donations from visitors walking by the nonprofit’s vendor site.
Mary Opall, the organization’s director, typically attends about 20 festivals annually to raise funds to care for the 900 injured animals that are brought to her facility annually.
Opall’s yearly budget is about $23,000. She hasn’t attended a festival yet this year and raised only about $10,000. That money was collected before March, 2020, she told the Chronicle.
Without being a vendor at festivals and handing out information, “the average person doesn’t know who to call when there’s a question about living with wildlife … or what to do if they find an injured animal,” Opall said.
“There’s no fundraising right now…and we haven’t done any,” Opall said.
Opall also needs volunteers because many are staying home because of the virus.
Opall said she welcomes the Cooter Festival and is grateful city officials are offering the event so she can get the word out about her organization. Opall can be contacted at 352-621-5575.
Rudi Weber, owner of Lynns Homemade Ice Cream & Belgian Waffles will also set up at the Cooter Festival.
Weber said he lost about 70% of his business because of the pandemic and when many of the large festivals across Florida cancelled and he had nowhere to go to generate revenue.
Only now is business slowly starting to pick up again, he told the Chronicle.
The ice cream shop, at 2028 W. Gulf-to-Lake Hwy., Inverness, is only seeing about 50% of its former business on weekends, he said. During weekdays, its less.
Weber said events such as the Cooter Festival are sorely needed now and every festival counts.
But Weber said he has faith life will get back to normal.
“It’s going to be better,” he said.