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A Columbia County commissioner described holding the festival during the pandemic as 'a terribly stupid idea.'

PMG FILE PHOTO - Large crowds flock to St. Helens each year to see the city's Spirit of Halloweentown festivities. This year's event features capped attendance, paid admission and other measures to reduce the risk of viral transmission.Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Helens' annual Spirit of Halloweentown festival started up this past weekend.

Columbia County commissioners approved a permit request by festival organizers, but they've made clear they personally oppose the festival plans.

"I am not happy that you guys would think it's OK to do this during a pandemic," Commissioner Alex Tardif told St. Helens officials.

He added, "So help me, if there's an outbreak because of this, I will be in your chambers, and I will be pissed."

Commissioners cautioned that they can revoke the permit at any time, if the approval conditions are not followed or COVID-19 cases spike.

The ticketed event also means that businesses inside the event area in downtown St. Helens will be difficult to access without paying for admission.

"By having the street blocked off and things blocked off (from) the locals, I can tell you that I'm probably not going to be a happy camper if I'm trying to get to one of the local businesses down there," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said.

St. Helens city staff said that they have coordinated with local businesses to find ways to get clients into their businesses.

On just the first weekend of the event, however, many St. Helens residents had taken to social media to express frustration at not being able to run to the store without paying $45.

Organizers are allowing up to 250 people per day inside the fenced-off festival area, according to Tina Curry, St. Helens' tourism organizer.

"Although this isn't a fundraiser, but a tourism event, it definitely does support many charities and businesses in our area," Curry told the St. Helens City Council.

Most large events in the county have been canceled since the pandemic began, including the county fair and Scappoose's Sauerkraut Festival.

The city of St. Helens, however, has kept events going with modifications. The city still hosted its annual 13 Nights on the River concert series, with limited occupancy and paid admission.

Michael Paul, Columbia County's top public health official, said the county can't be certain that no one attending St. Helens events this year was infected with the coronavirus, but the concert series this summer didn't appear to be the source of any outbreaks.

"We do have many cases who we linked to birthdays, weddings, holidays and other gatherings or events," Paul told the Spotlight. "That said, we did not link any cases to attendance at 13 Nights on the River."

Columbia County has posted a significantly lower rate of known infections than neighboring Washington and Multnomah counties, or Clatsop County, which suffered a workplace outbreak at a seafood processing facility last week. About 2% of tests conducted of Columbia County residents have come back positive for coronavirus infection.

With low case numbers within Columbia County, St. Helens has opted for paid tickets during peak hours at the Spirit of Halloweentown primarily to limit visitors from outside the county, according to city officials.

During the daytime on weekends, attendees have to purchase tickets. One-day tickets for $45 for adults and $35 for children between 3 and 18 years old.

Heimuller said he feels the city is making the event inaccessible to many county residents, "simply because it's a very high-priced event."

Curry told the council that by making the Spirit of Halloweentown a limited-occupancy, ticketed event, the city would be able to "control the amount of inbound traffic and ensure that proper precautions are made."

"We can't stop people from coming to town; however, we are attempting to control the number and that they will be following the rules," Curry said.

Heimuller was critical of the city's approach, though.

"(If) we're just catering to those folks that have the money to fly in from Tokyo and buy their tickets to come to see Halloweentown for the fifth year in a row, I don't know that that's all that good for the community," Heimuller said.

In past years, the Spirit of Halloweentown has drawn visitors from around the world.

Curry declined to answer questions about how many tickets were purchased for the first weekend and how many attendees were local residents, saying that information won't be available until the city puts together its next tourism report.

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