River City Roots 2019 file

Aden Beck plays the mandolin during the Portland band's first song of the set at the 2019 River City Roots Fest.

TOMMY MARTINO Missoulian

River City Roots Fest, one of the largest annual public events held in downtown Missoula, won't return as normal for its 15th year.

On Thursday, organizers announced they’re re-thinking what the event, originally scheduled for Aug. 28-29, could look like in the midst of a pandemic.

Typically, several blocks of downtown Missoula are closed off, and crowds of up to 15,000 people including locals, University of Montana students and tourists, gather to see music by national touring acts like Leftover Salmon and the Infamous Stringdusters, and local groups like the Whiz Pops and Moneypenny, with rows of food trucks and activities in Caras Park.

There’s no way to “social distance in what Roots Fest has been in the past, and there’s no way to limit attendance,” said Ellen Buchanan, chair of the festival committee. She said it would be “totally irresponsible” to proceed as normal.

They also wanted to avoid “raising expectations” for performers, vendors, artists and local businesses by letting them know now.

Moving ahead, the Missoula Downtown Association and the planning committee will examine ways to “pivot the festival to allow for smaller groups of attendees, local entertainment, and implementation of reopening guidelines in a responsible way,” according to the news release.

Buchanan said they’re going to try to “repurpose” the event and aren’t yet sure what it could be. They’re considering a virtual festival, small events with local bands held in multiple venues, and other ideas. Like other organizations planning events, they don’t know what the situation with the pandemic will be that far out, or what guidelines the local and state authorities will have in place. They’re soliciting ideas from the public that be sent to info@missouladowntown.com.

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus around the world, music festivals have been canceled or postponed en masse. In Missoula, large concerts at venues like KettleHouse Amphitheater, Big Sky Brewing Company Amphitheater, the Adams Center and more have seen the same.

One of the state’s largest, Red Ants Pants Music Festival, canceled this year. Also this week, the Magic City Blues Festival held in Billings each August postponed until 2021.

The phase two guidelines issued by Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this week allow for concerts at music halls with limits on capacity and social-distancing rules. However, no shows at Missoula music venues have been announced in the interim, and touring acts continue to announce cancellations or postponements until the summer of 2021.

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