COVID-sniffing dogs, masks, smaller crowds: South Beach food festival prepares for the pandemic

·4 min read

CNN’s cameras will be watching when guests arrive for the first food festival in America during a pandemic.

Dogs trained to detect COVID-19 symptoms will be sniffing the tens of thousands of guests entering the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which runs for four days starting on May 20. And a massive staff, including 1,500 Florida International University hospitality students, will be checking temperatures, enforcing masks and continuously sanitizing as they volunteer during a festival that will draw an estimated 20,000 people to South Beach this week.

For its 20th anniversary, the festival finds itself reimagining what hospitality means in a time when the coronavirus continues to be a threat — especially for what is believed to be the largest gathering of people outside of the Super Bowl since the pandemic began.

“I feel we’ve done everything we possibly could do to give that comfort level,” festival founder and director Lee Schrager said.

Hosting a festival at all this year after the postponement of the event in February has meant quickly adapting to the country’s changing coronavirus threat — and with government response to it.

After postponing the festival to May, organizers originally intended to make hard-and-fast regulations for staff, vendors and guests. They required proof of a vaccine or negative COVID test less than three days old for everyone at all events.

However Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order in April banning businesses that accept government funds from requiring proof of vaccines. (FIU, a public university, is a beneficiary of the festival.) And the first week of May he signed another invalidating local government mask-wearing rules — months after signing a separate order stating local municipalities couldn’t fine people for not wearing masks.

That “very frustrating” change pulled some of the teeth out of the festival’s original plan, Schrager said. (“I hate to use the word backpedal … ,” he said.) Instead guests will have to submit a digital questionnaire, strictly based on the honor system.

So the festival looked to the Miami Heat, which used COVID dogs early on. Guests who trigger an alert will have a chance to do a rapid test. Masks will still be mandatory when guests aren’t eating or drinking. The festival posted all of its guidelines on its website.

It paired that precaution with already drastically reduced capacity. The festival cut capacity to one-third of its usual attendance of 65,000, halved the number of events, and limited itself to outdoor-only dinners.

Intimate dinners were cut from about 100 people to 50. Large events, like the annual competition Burger Bash, was cut from one 4,000-guest event to two 1,000-person sessions with an hour cleaning period between them.

“Every time we got hit, we punched back with something different,” Schrager said. “I wanted to send the message up front that we mean business.”

FIU’s health advisory committee vetted the plan — an important step since students are involved in working the festival for scholarship money.

“If we ever felt it wasn’t safe for our students, we wouldn’t have gone forward with it,” said Michael Cheng, dean of FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. “It’s on us to make it safe for them.”

The result? Ticket sales have been brisk, including the most ever for its opening-day event, Bites on the Beach, and top chefs from around the world signed on.

“I trust the protocols they’re putting in place,” said Food Network “Chopped” judge Scott Conant, who will host several events at this year’s festival. “It’s going to be a different kind of event, and that’s OK. It’s got to be comfortable and it’s got to be safe.”

The list includes celebrity favorites such as Guy Fieri, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay and Marcus Samuelsson. But also stars of the culinary world, including the chef who put American fine dining on the map, Thomas Keller, and Peru’s Virgilio Martinez, whose Central in Lima is one of the world’s finest restaurants.

Ticket sales have been speediest for the small dining events, which are all outdoors and limited to 40-50 guests. The so-called mid-sized events, drawing 400-600 guests, have followed behind the large outdoor events for which the festival is known, such as Burger Bash and the champagne-and-barbecue BubbleQ, hosted by Fieri.

“We know the festival will look different this year,” Cheng said, “but it definitely will be safe.”

South Beach Wine & Food Festival

When: May 20-23 at various South Florida venues

Tickets: From $95 at sobewff.org

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