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'Left with no choice': Summerfest canceled for first time in history due to COVID-19

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Summerfest 2020 has officially been canceled. 

The Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. Board of Directors made the decision to cancel Summerfest 2020 at a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, June 4, according to a news release. The board's decision is "out of an abundance of caution" due to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement comes after the festival was previously rescheduled to September from its original dates in June 2020.

This is the first time the world's largest music festival has been canceled in its 53-year history. The dates of Summerfest 2021 will be announced in the coming weeks.

"What it came down to: It's probably not a good idea to put 70,000 or 80,000 people through our gates per night," said Don Smiley, president & CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc.

Smiley said the decision came after consulting with medical experts and realizing that there is no reasonable way of distancing people at the festival.

"We were really left with no choice at that point," Smiley said.

Festival officials said Summerfest contributes $186 million to the local economy, and that money will now be lost. But Smiley said they won't know how much revenue they're losing by not holding the event.

"We had more shows booked on our grounds -- between the American Family Insurance Amphitheater and the BMO Harrris Pavilion -- than in the history of the event. Our business was going to be up 300 percent," Smiley said.

The decision to cancel the event affects not only fans but artists, vendors, staff and tourists who come to Milwaukee specifically for Summerfest.

"Summerfest draws almost a million people to our lakefront each and every year and has an economic impact of around $200 million. So it is a big loss for the city, but we do think that Milwaukee is still going to be a strong leisure destination in the coming months as people do want to get out and start experiencing different things," said Kristin Settle, director of communications for VISIT Milwaukee.

Settle noted that there are still several large events scheduled this year that will bring people to Milwaukee, including the USA Triathalon event, the Democratic National Convention and the Ryder Cup.

Read the full statement from Don Smiley, President & CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., surrounding the cancellation:

After careful, diligent, and thoughtful consideration and out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our community - including artists, fans, vendors, participants and staff – Summerfest presented by American Family Insurance will not take place in September 2020, as previously announced.

It is our honor to be responsible for such a storied tradition. With five decades of festivals, countless legendary performances and millions of memories, Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. explored numerous options to ensure the Summerfest tradition could continue in 2020, in a safe and healthy manner.

Yet, given the information available today, and the uncertainty surrounding very large gatherings, we cannot in good conscience proceed with the festival this year. The immediate future presents multiple levels of risk for our fans, and we choose the side of safety.

This announcement comes after our staff, sponsors and vendors have worked tirelessly over the past two months to reformulate the festival for the rescheduled 2020 dates. Our commitment to doing everything possible to preserve the social and economic impact of $186 million, which Summerfest generates annually is paramount, yet the uncertainties are too great.

Our present situation is especially disheartening, given that the new $53 million American Family Insurance Amphitheater was scheduled to open on June 24, ready to host over 20 superstars during and after Summerfest. We are grateful to American Family Insurance and all the donors who made this new venue possible, and look forward to welcoming artists and fans in 2021.

Refunds on Summerfest admission tickets purchased via Summerfest.com or Ticketmaster are available. Information regarding how to get a refund on festival admission tickets, as well as information regarding concert tickets for the American Family Insurance Amphitheater or the BMO Harris Pavilion can be found at Summerfest.com.

As we all face a challenging and unusual summer and fall ahead, we sincerely appreciate all the support demonstrated by our fans and sponsors and encourage you to support your favorite musicians in the months to come. We hope you will carry the spirit of Summerfest with you until we can be together again. May the magic of music fill your life with joy and memories.

Until Summerfest 2021, I remain, sincerely,


Don Smiley
President & CEO

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