BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – First, the flocks of birds didn’t arrive. Then omicron did.
Citing an explosion of COVID-19 on the Space Coast and a warm winter without many migratory birds, the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival — the premier ecotourism event in Central Florida — has been cancelled for the first time in its quarter-century existence, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
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The event, based in Titusville, draws hundreds of birders and venders from around the globe and is an important yearly economic boost for local businesses. But this year, COVID-19, a warm winter and coastal waters blooming with algae made it an easy call to cancel the event that longtime Indian River Lagoon activist Laurilee Thompson started 25 years ago.
“I’m sad,” Thompson said Thursday after the executive committee of the nonprofit that runs the event voted unanimously to cancel this year’s festival. “Our registrations were way down. There’s not a lot of birds here right now.” She added: “We didn’t want to disappoint people.”
Typically, about 600 people would register for the event. For this year’s event, which was planned for Feb. 2-6, it was about half that, she said.
“When we have these exhibitors and they’re coming from other parts of the world, they’re spending a lot of money coming here, they are hoping to be able to talk to people because they’re tour operators. They’re trying to sell product and if we can’t have a lot of people walking through the expo hall, then it’s not worth time and expense to come here,” Thompson told News 6 reporter Carolina Cardona.
All registration fees will be reimbursed, Thompson said, although some said the nature alliance can keep the money for next year or for the group’s causes.
Thompson cited increased fears over COVID-19 as the main reason for calling this year’s festival off.
“We also felt like, if somebody came here this year and they had not such a good experience because we don’t have a lot of birds in the area right now either because of the weather, they may not ever come back,” Thompson told News 6.
The six-member executive board of the nonprofit Brevard Nature Alliance, which organizes the event, voted unanimously Thursday to cancel this year’s festival, Thompson said. While COVID was a main reason, Thompson emphasized that there’s a bigger, longer-term ecological picture.
Bart Gaetjens, chairman of the BNA executive board and a spokesman for Florida Power & Light Company, said it was a moral and ethical imperative to cancel the event. Gaetjens said he decided to call Thursday’s emergency meeting to cancel the event after hearing what local emergency managers where saying about the local COVID-19 risk.
COVID-19 case rates released by the Florida Department of Health last week showed a 309% increase in cases on the Space Coast from the week prior. From Dec. 24 to Dec. 30, Brevard County had 814.6 cases per 100,000 people, which translates to 4,979 COVID-19 cases. The new case positivity rate also increased from 8.1% to 23.8%, according to FDOH data. The state doesn’t provide data on vaccine status of those cases.
“We had a lot of cancellations,” Gaetjens said. “And the last thing we want to have our vendors disappointed ... We want to live up to the expectations.”
Thompson said she also could not in good conscience encourage birders to come to Brevard County during an ongoing mass manatee starvation and a dearth of many birds.
“I’m embarrassed to try to entice people to come here and see what we’ve allowed to happen to our beautiful environment here,” Thompson said. “We have created a desert.”