With numerous events already canceled and local innkeeper bookings lagging well behind last year due to the COVID-19 emergency, Visit Madison Indiana Inc. and the Jefferson County Tourism Board received a bleak report on one of the area’s biggest industries when both groups met Monday.

But rather than focus on lost opportunities and revenue by tourism — both the Madison River Jam and Madison Regatta and Roostertail Music festivals have already been canceled — the groups also heard reports on how they will go about getting back on track if and when state crowd restrictions are relaxed to open the door for the festivals and events that fill hotel rooms and bring business to local shops and restaurants.

From music festivals to car shows and from riverboat visits to local parks and recreation, the coronavirus pandemic has essentially stopped the area’s tourism industry in its tracks. Innkeeper bookings are running about 30% behind last season and that could have been much worse if not for several construction projects that continue to help fill local motels with temporary workers.

With the county’s Innkeepers’ Tax falling well short of budget projections, Visit Madison cashed in one of its annuities this month — almost $118,000 — to help make payroll and keep cash on hand until tourism once again starts producing.

According to Executive Tourism Director Tawana Thomas, with pandemic restrictions scheduled to end in phases, business from tourism is not going to completely return overnight but she thinks after weeks of being stuck at home, visitors in the one- to two-hour travel region around Madison are ready to get out and will be visiting Madison sooner rather than later as long as the rate of new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decline.

With the next phase of Indiana’s Back on Track plan for reopening businesses and services scheduled to begin Sunday — barring a setback in virus cases — one of the area’s biggest festivals appears to still be on, albeit with a smaller footprint and focus, and several events are being added to fill the void left by other cancellations.

Madison Ribberfest, the barbecue and blues food and music festival in August, is still scheduled. Organizers have surveyed Bicentennial Park based on projected crowd restrictions and anticipated social distancing guidelines and the area should be able to safely accommodate more than 1700 fans. While that is well below the normal draw of the festival, it could still be sufficient for what will be billed as a reduced event his year.

Since contracts and appearance fees must be paid up front to secure the featured bands and headline performers at an event like Ribberfest, the uncertainty of the virus pandemic has led organizers to side with caution and cancel the bulk of the two-day program in favor of a one-day event that will focus on less expensive regional bands with less financial risk in the event the pandemic takes a turn for the worse and the event has to be canceled.

The issue is more complex than whether state or local governments will allow the festival to take place or crowds attend. Organizers must also come to terms with the safety of entertainers, fans and volunteers and whether the precautions that will be needed to protect everyone render the event untenable.

“The majority of our coordinators and volunteers are in that 55 to 65 age group that is at high risk,” Thomas said, adding that even having to wear personal protective equipment like face masks in what is likely to be extreme August heat poses a threat in addition to the virus. “But everybody agreed let’s don’t shut this thing down but let’s look at if we went forward could we do a reduced one day event with local and regional acts.”

Thomas said a one-day event could still appeal to local fans as well as some visitors with good music and lower ticket prices but fewer food vendors. She said one option might be to cancel the competition portion of the barbecue festival while still allowing local amateurs to set up their smokers in a non-competitive event to provide some of the ambiance festival goers are used to.

Joe Craig, a Visit Madison board member, urged against canceling the professional barbecue competition sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society because it is now the oldest ongoing barbecue competition in the state and that distinction should be preserved if possible. He also noted that the professional teams would be more likely to follow whatever guidelines might need to be in place in regard to the virus pandemic and more likely to generate tourism dollars by staying in local motel rooms and buying from local businesses.

With three months still remaining before the event, Thomas said a number of issues will be revisited and plans could change as new reports on the virus are released and Gov. Eric Holcomb issues new orders to either lessen or increase restrictions.

“We still want to have it. Unfortunately it won’t be the Ribberfest we’re used to but we still want to do something,” Thomas said.

Based on the Governor’s Back on Track plan, if all goes well Indiana should be totally reopened by July 4. That will be too late to save events like the Madison Regatta but not the Fourth of July Fireworks Show, according to Madison Community Relations Director Hannah Fagen.

Fagen said the city is raising funds to host the annual fireworks show as well as five pop-up drive-in movie events on dates to be announced in May, June and July at the Jefferson County 4-H Fairgrounds. The fireworks will cost about $30,000 — $23,000 of that for the actual fireworks with $10,000 contributed to date — and the movies are expected to cost around $3,000 per evening. All six events will be free and open to the public.

Meanwhile, Tourism Board member Curtis Chatham reported that the groundwork is being laid to create a Jefferson County Sports Commission to begin organizing events for as soon as this summer. He said the Commission, which has not yet been formed, would identify and organize tournaments and events utilizing area ball fields, courts and parks for youth and adult athletics.

Chatham said while there are a number of parks and schools programs currently, for much of the season local athletic venues sit unused or at least underutilized in Madison, Jefferson County and nearby Hanover College. He said local teams often travel to other communities to compete in tournaments and camps and for Jefferson County to not be involved in hosting similar events is an untapped opportunity for the athletes and their families and the tourism industry.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bob Courtney talked briefly about Chatham’s proposal at Madison City Council while also announcing that Madison’s interim Parks Director Seth Pennington has been hired to serve in that capacity full-time. Courtney agreed with Chatham that Madison’s facilities would be perfect for such events and will only get better as a current project to evaluate and develop an improvement plan for the entire parks system and its leagues moves forward this year.

Thomas said while Visit Madison’s event-related activity has been curtailed during the current COVID shutdown, it has in no way diminished the agency’s efforts on planning, organization and networking within the industry via Zoom and other virus safe methods.

“We’ve been taking full advantage of this time to do research,” she said, noting the staff has assembled a full spreadsheet of all volunteers as well as identifying and cultivating new volunteers who can help move the various projects forward in the future.