Lederhosen optional, masks required: New Ulm's Oktoberfest goes low-key in pandemic

A sign stands out on the sidewalk
A sign outside a business warns customers of the mask requirements. New Ulm’s Oktoberfest will go on this weekend, but it’s going to look a little different than usual in the coronavirus era.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

New Ulm’s Oktoberfest will go on this weekend — but it’s going to look a little different than usual in the coronavirus era.

Downtown’s Minnesota Street will be a lot quieter this weekend than in Oktoberfests past, but there will still be polka music.

COVID-19 has forced event organizers at the New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce to scale back the annual festival. But they’re trying to make the best of the situation.

Says Michael Looft, the chamber’s CEO: “You can wear your lederhosen, but you cannot dance.”

This year, there will be hand sanitizer aplenty. Masks are required — and will be strictly enforced. So will social distancing. It’ll be a mostly outdoors affair. And unlike in previous years, Minnesota Street will be closed to traffic, so the festival’s open-air craft fair can take center stage.

And dancing? Well, there will still be music — but to keep the risk of spreading COVID-19 low, guests will need to hold themselves back.

Looft said the decision to go ahead with the Oktoberfest tradition this year wasn’t an easy one. But organizers decided they should try to strike a balance between keeping people safe and bringing the community together.

“We felt like now is the time to do it,” he said — because Oktoberfest is one way New Ulm brings visitors to businesses downtown. Looft said about 25 percent of the city’s economy comes from tourism.

Many of those businesses have already lost revenue because of COVID-19.

“We’re probably not going to have a winter festival. We’re probably not going to do any of that stuff,” Looft said. “We felt like if we didn’t have this one outlet, to let people celebrate the community and really have a good time in a safe manner, then we might lose some of these festivals. What is to say that we won’t call off Oktoberfest next year?”

New Ulm is known for its German-themed festivals, like Bock Fest and Bavarian Blast — and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all of those events have been cancelled.

“This is important to us,” Looft said. “It’s important to the community that we do it.”

Even the advertising for the festival has been different this year. It’s been more subtle, focusing more on celebrating the city during a hard time, and supporting local businesses. Organizers are planning a much smaller than usual affair — and hope that will also limit the number of visitors coming to New Ulm in the middle of the pandemic.

Brown County has a lower number of COVID-19 cases than other parts of southwest Minnesota. But virus numbers can change quickly — which public health director Karen Moritz knows all too well.

“Anytime there's large gatherings, I think public health has some concern because we have seen across the state and locally as well,” Moritz said. “Many cases are linked to large gatherings. So of course, we are always concerned, regardless of whether [large gatherings] happen or not.”

Moritz said that, while organizers and residents have done a good job of putting measures in place to keep visitors safe at Oktoberfest, it will also be crucial for festival attendees to follow the rules set by the vendors and organizers.

“We need to try to walk this fine line between mental health and well-being, economy and protecting each other,” she said.

In the meantime, Looft said, businesses will need to be creative as they look ahead to the future.

“I don't think large events are going to be profitable for the next couple years,” he said. “I think that we have a lot of soul searching to do when it comes to how do we attract people differently than we have in the past.”

He said finding new ways to draw people into the city will be crucial to downtown businesses’ survival.

“Large events like that are just not going to be very popular for a long time,” he said. “So I think when we talk about festivals in New Ulm, we know we're gonna have to reinvent some of this stuff and figure it out really quick.”

So while guests are welcome to come to Oktoberfest, Looft is asking that they keep in mind that this year will be much lower-key — and more socially distanced than usual.

And while lederhosen are optional, masks are not.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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