Westfest, an annual celebration of Czech culture that brings more than 20,000 people to West each Labor Day weekend, will not be held this year as West Mayor Tommy Muska and festival organizers have agreed to cancel the event because of COVID-19 concerns.
Muska met with board members Monday night before the decision was announced on the Westfest website.
“I’m probably the most hated man in America right now,” Muska said Tuesday afternoon. “I went through 10 years (as mayor), including the (2013 fertilizer plant) explosion and this was the hardest damn decision I’ve had to make. I tear up when I think about it, but there was no way in the world we could pull (Westfest) off. It’s impossible to social distance, for one thing.”
Westfest President John Hurtick said his board supports the mayor in the decision, given the state protocols to slow the spread of COVID-19 and the prospect of its impact on West.
“When you look at more than 100 people attending, face masks and social distancing, it just wouldn’t be possible. It was almost a ‘have-to’ decision,” Hurtick said. “The decision was basically Tommy’s, but we had a lot of input on that and we totally support that decision. … There were more negatives than positives this year.”
The news arrived on a day that officials announced 162 new COVID-19 cases in the county, more than doubling a previous single-day high of 79. The rapid growth of new cases reported in McLennan County this week also led the West Chamber of Commerce to postpone its Fourth of July fireworks show planned for Saturday night.
Westfest’s cancellation ends a 44-year streak for the festival, which highlights the town’s Czech heritage and annually draws some 20,000 people to West for dancing, Czech food, beer, live music, arts and crafts, carnival rides, a parade and more. The prospect of COVID-19 spreading in those crowds this year has done what seasons of blistering heat, rainouts and the city’s rebuilding after the 2013 explosion that killed 15 people and damaged much of the town could not do.
Westfest not only puts the town on the Texas map for thousands of people each Labor Day weekend, but raises about $30,000 for community organizations and projects — more than $1 million in the festival’s history. It also provides an opportunity for other local organizations’ fundraisers.
Planners had been watching the effects of COVID-19 in the county for several months with an eye to the festival’s fate, said Hurtick, who has served as Westfest board president for 39 years. Westfest had a yellow, if not a green light as late as three weeks ago, but the surge in new cases experienced locally in the past two weeks tipped organizers’ decision, he said.
Muska agreed. He said the complexity of planning the event with COVID-19 precautions — social distancing, sanitation facilities and materials, masking, breaking up large groups into smaller ones and more — became increasingly difficult.
Even if organizers had decided to continue on, there were no guarantees crowds, vendors or volunteers would show up as they had year after year, Muska said. Organizers had set a July 1 deadline for a decision to allow sufficient time to order supplies, lease tents and arrange other festival details.
West’s community involvement from young to old was a major factor in the cancellation, with out-of-town visitors and multi-generational interaction increasing the possibility of COVID-19 spread.
“The health of our community had to take priority,” Hurtick said.
Looking forward, it is possible some smaller community events will take the place of fundraisers dependent on Westfest, Hurtick said. West Chamber of Commerce President John Kocian also held out the possibility that the July Fourth fireworks could be rescheduled for sometime in the fall.
Though Westfest organizers are working through the shock of cancellation, they are already looking forward.
“We’ll start planning for 2021 right now,” Hurtick said. “It’s been a huge part of the community of West. We want it to continue.”