A summer without church picnics? How COVID-19 is taking its toll on a NEPA tradition

Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Plains, Pa. is one of many churches in northeastern Pennsylvania that will have to make a decision on its scheduled annual festival | Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla

SCRANTON, Pa. — The potato pancakes and hamburgers sizzle on the grill. Volunteers douse pierogis in butter, fry pizza fritta and bake haluski.

Parish picnics, carnivals and festivals provide the sounds and smells of summer in Northeastern Pennsylvania. 

Along with fire department festivals and some municipal food festivals, the church fundraisers fill residents’ social calendars. They’re already feeling the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic. Some are weighing postponing – or even outright canceling – their annual events. Those decisions could have far reaching effects on the community.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the commonwealth 16,239 cases of the virus and 310 fatalities, according to state Department of Health data released Wednesday. Luzerne County, home of Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton as well as many rural areas, has been hit particularly hard. It’s had 1,134 cases and 11 deaths.

Under normal circumstances, the region would be ramping up for church fair season. The local newspapers would run pages listing all the festivals. Some are mainly food affairs, others are filled with kids games, rides, games of chance and the popular beer tents

“For us, [The festival] is very important,” the Rev. Michael Bryant, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Scranton, told the Capital-Star. “Financially, it’s extremely important, but it’s also important because it brings people together.”

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Of course, churches in other parts of the state hold fairs too. St. Joseph’s Carnival in York is an annual tradition, scheduled to take place in early June this year. It’s pastor, the Rev. Steve Fernandes, told the Capital-Star that they are still moving ahead.

An Unprecedented time

“This is an unprecedented time,” Fernandez said. “At this point in time we still have plans to hold it”

Fernandes echoed Bryant’s comments that the annual fundraiser is important for bringing people together, as well as raising funds.

“The fundraiser is secondary to the building up of the community,” he said.

The Rev. Innocent Neal, the pastor of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, just outside of Wilkes-Barre, agreed.

“We really rely on it for our income,” he said. “And It keeps people connected to the church. You can lose people from your community the longer you’re away.” 

That sense of community, however, is what is making parishioners and church leaders consider cancelling or postponing their events.

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“Fifty-five percent of our parishioners are over 65, so we have to keep that in mind,” Neal said. “That’s the high risk population.”

He couldn’t see how the parish would have its annual festival if the virus doesn’t stop spreading.

With churches already canceling Easter services, it’s not hard to see the festivals, fairs and picnics following suit.

Following suit

Some have already canceled. The popular Pa Greek Fest at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Harrisburg has already been postponed. It was slated to open May 15.

It’s not just the religious community that is affected. 

Wilkes-Barre’s Fine Arts Fiesta and Cherry Blossom Festival have been canceled since March. The arts festival draws crowds to downtown Wilkes-Barre for four days every May for live music and art vendors from around the state and surrounding region.

The Edwardsville Pierogi Festival is a new event in Luzerne County that continues to grow. Organizer Jacqueline Moran estimated it drew 7,000 people last year alone. People flock to the festival for the food, music and crafts. It’s slated for June 12 weekend. Organizers are trying to hold off from canceling.

Moran explained that they don’t want to cancel too late, which would hurt vendors.

“We want to give our suppliers and vendors respect,” she said. “We want to make a  fair call in a reasonable amount of time.”

The cancelation of events such as these will affect the local music scene, which is already seeing a crunch.

Stephen Flannery is a member of Zayre Mountain, a popular rock band in the region that regularly performs at festivals. He said local musicians have to hope for the best and plan for the worst. They have to keep things in perspective.

“… (As) soon as you pull back and look at the bigger picture, with all the sickness and death and genuine mortal pain and loss, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself,” he told the Capital-Star.

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers Northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.