Night markets, festivals brace for another COVID summer

Continued pandemic restrictions threaten plans for popular Metro Vancouver outdoor events

Pre-pandemic, the Shipyards Night Market in North Vancouver drew large crowds | Courtesy Lower Lonsdale Business Improvement Association

Those hoping for a return this summer of night markets and other street festivals could be disappointed.

That’s because, with growing concerns about a variant-driven third wave of the pandemic sweeping the country, it is now looking more challenging than ever to stage outdoor events that earlier this year looked as if they would be allowed to proceed.

Some event organizers are already postponing or writing off the formal market portion of their events, even if they aren’t officially cancelled yet. Instead, organizers will look to alternatives such as online sessions and small spread-out “activations.”

“At this point, whether it’s the Friday-night markets or any of the more static setups, we are not going to go down that path yet because it can draw too many people and become an event,” said Greg Holmes, executive director of the Lower Lonsdale Business Improvement Association (BIA) in North Vancouver, which ran the popular Shipyards Night Market every Friday during the summer prior to COVID. “If things start to improve – and that’s what we all hope – then I can see us having a scaled-down night market.”

The Shipyard Night Market on a typical year draws approximately 10,000 visitors a night and features about 120 retailers along with 40 food vendors, but the entire schedule was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Instead, Holmes said, the City of North Vancouver and the BIA shifted its focus early in the pandemic year to take advantage of the city’s waterfront public space by setting up patios for restaurants and bars and picnic tables and outdoor spaces for things like spin classes and retail kiosks that are linked to neighbourhood bricks-and-mortar storefronts.

“I hate using the word ‘pivot’ because it’s been overused, but we were able to adapt very quickly and add all kinds of temporary infrastructure – and not just within the shipyards, but throughout the community,” Holmes said. “We recognize that as a waterfront community, we are in a good position because we already have a good bit of public space along the water that can be activated, so that’s what we’ve done.”

North Vancouver also held a number of “activations” around seasonal holidays like Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day, where street performers were brought in to draw visitors within North Vancouver.

The Lower Mainland’s largest night market faces much bigger challenges. The Richmond Night Market – the largest of its kind in North America – spent close to $800,000 on items such as tents and other equipment for 2020 before the event, held on 24 acres of land across the water from the Vancouver International Airport, was cancelled.

Event owner Raymond Cheung had said previously that the investment for a night market needed to be made at least a year in advance. The organizers consequently face unrecoverable costs when the event is cancelled even months ahead of time.

However, the Richmond Night Market is at least keeping the option open for operating this summer. Cheung’s Firework Productions has applied to the City of Richmond for a three-year permit, and this year’s dates would allow the event to run from May 21 to December 31 if the provincial health restrictions are lifted. But officials have said they will operate for only 80 days between those dates if allowed.

A May 17 public hearing is scheduled in Richmond to consider the application.

Organizers for other Metro Vancouver cultural festivals that have traditionally large market and food-vending elements have said that last year’s alternative formats are not a long-term solution.

Charlie Wu, managing director at the Asian Canadian Special Events Association and organizer of the annual TaiwanFest in Vancouver and Toronto, said the festival had to dramatically alter its plans last year to include online virtual talks combined with outdoor art installations, forgoing the traditional food market and street festival setup over a weekend in late August or early September.

While Wu said the group has already booked venues such as Vancouver’s Art Gallery Plaza in anticipation of some physical setup, COVID-19’s continuing spread in Canada is making him less optimistic about a return to the street market format.

“Last year in April, we were still pretty hopeful we could go outdoors, but things got bad really quickly,” Wu said. “So if you ask me about the outdoor portion … it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen other than having some installations outside.”

For another major cultural festival in the city with a food element, organizers are leaving the door open for a return to normal – somewhat. The Nikkei Matsuri in Burnaby, staged by the Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre typically over Labour Day long weekend to celebrate Japanese-Canadian culture, switched to a “Summer at Nikkei Garden” concept last year.

It spread the celebration over several weekends, replacing traditional one-time crowds with social distancing, staggered entry times and performers, vendors and food trucks separated by wide spaces.

While the attendees enjoyed the event, the organizers are hopeful for a return to a Matsuri by late summer if the pandemic subsides, said Nikkei Museum Executive Director Karah Goshinmon Foster.

“What we are looking at is a return to Labour Day long weekend closer to the concept of a mini-Matsuri, instead of spreading things out over the summer. The potential is there of having something on-site that’s closer to a Matsuri – while still in a miniature form – so it may take the form of a controlled entry.”

Goshinmon Foster noted that there’s is an additional element stemming from COVID for the Nikkei Matsuri for organizers to consider – the Matsuri is one of the biggest public celebrations in Japanese culture, and the pandemic-induced travel ban means that many Japanese people in Metro Vancouver looked to the “Summer at Nikkei Garden” event last year for the all-important community support that they would usually get at home.

“Given the significance to the community and the importance of these celebrations, by the time Labour Day rolls around, that feeling you get from the Matsuri  – you can’t replicate it in another format,” she said. “It’s going to be crucial for strengthening people’s spirits.... Of course it’s a challenge for everyone, but for many who can’t return to Japan and connect with family and friends, we hope can fill part of that void.”