People will be flocking to downtown Iowa City on Saturday to hit thestreetsfor a game of sand volleyball or duel in a rapid game of chess, but the festivitiesdon't have to stop there.
While the Iowa City Block Party is a one-day event, theJohnson County Fair begins its four-day run on Sunday that celebrates children, livestock, agriculture and odd contests.
These two big summer staples— Block Party has brought out tens of thousands of people in years past— returnthis weekend after a one-year hiatus, albeit with slight alterations to account for COVID-19 safety precautions.
Both events are free. Both ask that non-vaccinated guests wear masks.
And both were greatly missed by their organizers, and residents, in 2020.
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Take Studio 13, the downtown Iowa City nightclub. Jason Zeman, CEO of Corridor Entertainment Group,which owns Studio 13 and other venues like Iowa City Yacht Club,
wrote in an email to the Press-Citizen that Studio 13 has worked with Block Party since its inception in 2017.
The value for participating in Block Party is "safe fun," wrote Zeman, and brings out people throughout the community.
"It's a great boost for business in a traditionally slower time of year," he wrote.
Block Party adds more blocks so visitors can spread out
Betsy Potter, director of operations for the Iowa City Downtown District, said the organization sought ways to make attendees feel safe while attending the Block Party. It is happening at a time when Johnson County's COVID-19 numbers have flattened out.
Currently, 60% of people living in Johnson County are fully vaccinated. According to the latest available data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, an average of 3.1% of COVID-19 tests in the past 14 days in Johnson County are positive.
The event has expanded in size, adding 20,000 square feet to ensure ample room to space out activities and crowds.
For the first time, Block Party will close Iowa Avenue from the Pentacrest to Linn Street, according to Potter. An additional block will be added to Washington Street as well. Other street closures include Dubuque Street from Iowa Avenue to Washington Street, and Washington Street from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street. Linn Street will be closed from Iowa Avenue down to the alleyway before the Iowa City Public Library. Clinton will be closed from College Street to Iowa Avenue.
Street closures will start around 5 a.m.Saturday, Potter said, and some of the activities at Block Party will begin as early as 2 p.m. All parking will be allocated to downtownramps, which will be free all day Saturday until 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
The Downtown District worked to be as safe as possible when deciding what programs could be held at this year’s Block Party. Still, the event’s purpose remained: to welcome everyone downtown, including those who haven’t been for a long time, Potter said.
“It means more now than ever for families in the community to come back downtown and enjoy these kinds of unique programming elements,” she said.
In order to achieve that goal, a wide variety of experiences have to be offered, like the chess tournament by the Iowa State Chess Association, an element that Potter said was “terrific” to add because it was different than other activities at the Block Party.
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“How often can you watch 200 people play chess in the middle of Washington Street?” Potter asked. “So that's exactly the type of programming that we've been looking for is like a different experience that you can't always get in the middle of downtown.”
Familiar activities like silent disco has been moved from Dubuque Street to a longer stretch of Clinton Street, Potter said, to allow people to spread out. There will be 750 headsets available for attendees, sanitized between eachuse.
Sand volleyball also returns, with an additional court due to its popularity. Four musicians will be performing live starting at 5 p.m. at the Weatherdance Stage on the Ped Mall.
But some activities, like basketball, have been swapped out this year to minimize close contact.
Though line dancing and salsa dancing will be new for 2021 Block Party attendees, they were originally part of 2020’s Block Party programs, according to Potter.
“There's probably more consistency than there is new, but people are still really loving all the activities that we're planning, so we'll just keep at it,” she said.
Bringing the crowds to downtown businesses
In 2019, an estimated 42,000 people came out to attend the third annual Block Party.
One of the original purposes of Block Party was for the Downtown District to expand the nighttime economy, according to Potter. The goal was to show Iowa City what downtown had to offer, especially for nightlife.
Those original sentiments resonate this year as restaurants, bars and entertainment venues make their return after operating at limited capacities throughout the height of the pandemic.
Brian Flynn, owner of Joe’s Place, said his bar would bring out pool tables for attendees at the earliest Block Parties.
Though that has changed, his appreciation for Block Party remains.
“We absolutely love this event in the summer,” Flynn said. “It’s a highlight day for the bars and restaurants downtown.”
Flynn said Joe’s Place is excited to see more foot traffic, and his hope is that Block Party will continue to grow and bring peopledowntown.
Studio 13will continue to sponsor an outdoor drag show forBlock Party attendees. Zeman wrote that the event“offers a sense of shared community” and shows what downtown has to offer.
“This year's Block Party does feel different, as most everything does, after the past 16 months,” Zeman wrote.
“It is my hope that having this big community event will play an important part in bringing people back together and remind everyone of the importance of getting the vaccine if they are able to and already haven't.”
Johnson County Fair kicks off, marking a return to normalcy
The carnival rides andlivestock judging that mark the Johnson County Fair begin Sunday and last until Wednesday.
Country artist and Iowa native Jason Brown will take the grandstand stage at 7 p.m. Sunday.Other grandstand entertainment includes an ATV Big Air Tour anda professional wrestling promotion.
Conversations about the possibility of having a normal fair began in May withJohnson County Public Health and Johnson County Emergency Management, according to Charlie Isaacs, Johnson County Fair Board president.
The fair, which will end with a literal bang with fireworks at the grandstand on Wednesday, will look slightly different with COVID-19 safety precautions in place.
Michael Leick, fairgrounds coordinator for the Johnson County Agricultural Association, explained that everything that can be held outdoors will be, with extra-large tents ordered for the indoor-turned-outdoor activities.
Inside the exhibitor buildings, Leick said that every other booth will be populated to promote more space. The buildings will also limit capacity to half, so Building A will hold 275 people as opposed to 550.
Sanitizer and hand-washing stations will be available on the fairgrounds, and bathrooms will be stocked with soap regularly, Leick said. While this year’s fair has the same format as2019’s, Leick said activities like sunflower seed spitting was exchanged for a bean bag game due to COVID-19 concerns.
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Still, the Johnson County Fair continues its tradition of beingalcohol-free, with no admission fee, and centered towards serving the 4-H community and youth.
Based off the response Leick has heard, people new to Johnson County and longtime residents are happy to have the fair back. And it’s more than just to participate in the buffalo wing eating contest or check out the ugly cake contest— although fairgoers can do that, too.
“It means a return to normalcy, you know, get back in the swing of things, being able to see your friends and neighbors and celebrate the county fair,” Isaacs said. “It’s always been a great thing to do for family and friends and always know that you can count on seeing them at the end of July at the fair.”
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at PBarraza@press-citizen.com or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.