Beloved Czech Days returns to small South Dakota town after a pandemic hiatus
The pandemic led to cancelled festivals across South Dakota last summer, including Czech Days -- when thousands descend on tiny Tabor. This year, the festival is back, but with some precautions and changes, as COVID-19 has yet to fully ebb in the state.
TABOR, S.D. — All looks normal on the main drag in Tabor, S.D., days before its storied summer holiday.
Banners with the rose-red vested man and black kroj-hugging woman hang from light fixtures. Wooden roadblocks divert traffic from the trucked-in midway rides still mid-assembly. And in freezers across town, kolaches — Czech pastries baked months ago — are being pulled out to thaw.
But one doesn't have to look hard to find differences wrought by the pandemic, too.
The St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church Altar & Rosary Society, comprising many older parishioners, decided in January to abstain from overseeing lunches and suppers at Beseda Hall due to health protocols, so the hall has scrambled for volunteers.
Signs encourage the use of hand sanitizer. The website (www.taborczechdays.com) calls for masks for the unvaccinated. The famed polka Mass will be outside to allow for better ventilation.
And Mark Povondra, a co-chair of tiny Tabor's Czech Days celebration, says organizers have dropped a word from posters.
"This year will be the 72nd Czech Days," said Povondra, in an interview on Wednesday, June 16. "We did 71 consecutive. We never missed one. And then, last year ...."
He interrupts himself, describing the move to cancel last year's Czech Days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have a saying in town that canceling Czech Days was kind of like canceling Christmas."
All across South Dakota little towns are picking up the pieces, like folks do after a tornado rips through town, and the most visible symbol may be the return of town festivals. Vinegar Days is back on in Roslyn, after a year off. Honey Days in Bruce will also return. Last weekend, a church at a dueling Czech festival across the Missouri River in Verdigre, Neb., ran out of food after only an hour.
Czech Days return Friday and Saturday, June 18 and 19.
But, still, things will feel different in Tabor.
Slow return to the way things were
While Gov. Kristi Noem often touts her administration's decision to not shut things down, townspeople are a little more wary about fully returning to the way things were, at least right away.
At a media briefing Wednesday, June 16, state epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton was pressed by reporters to declare whether the pandemic in South Dakota had ended.
"We are not all the way through the pandemic," replied Clayton, urging more residents to get vaccinated.
The state's department of health said this week that 51% of eligible adults in South Dakota are fully vaccinated against a coronavirus that killed nearly 2,000 of its residents. But the wallop the virus gave the state still stings, especially in rural towns.
"There are still some people generally [who are] pretty fearful of COVID, and it's understandable," said the Rev. Mark Lichter, parish priest at St. Wenceslaus in Tabor. "It's [Czech Days] not the full-fledged one that they're used to."
Revelry will still go on. The kolache-eating contest, the crowning of royalty and even "Czech Heritage Reenactments" will all grace the stage. There'll be a baseball game and a parade.
But a lunch line at the hall has been cut. The bands won't be in the hall, either, but in the park. And locals acknowledge some may choose to stay home.
In Bon Homme County , 1 in 4 residents were infected with COVID-19 — roughly the same rate as New York City. As of this week, less than half of residents (44%) are vaccinated, according to data culled by The New York Times.
In a typical year, officials in the town of 423 expect between 5,000 and 10,000 attendees — transforming Tabor to the county's largest community overnight. Kolache, the culinary heart of Czech Days, usually begins baking in April, with bakers freezing the yeasty pastry for June.
But last year, Povondra said the town's army of volunteer kolache bakers started asking in the pandemic's early days about whether the five chairs overseeing the event would hold the gathering, just as the CDC and other health agencies recommended avoiding crowds.
"It was a no-brainer," Povondra said.
Most don't begrudge officials for the cancellation.
One volunteer, walking proudly in Wednesday's blazing sun in a "Czech Days 2011" T-shirt, said most agreed with the cancellation decision, and that many know someone who died of COVID-19.
When the altar society opted against overseeing the food, he said locals — many younger — stepped up.
Ready for Czech Days
Locals note that enthusiasm for this year's return has also galvanized as the state and nation have begun to emerge from the pandemic's clutches. While President Biden's goal to hit 70% of adults be vaccinated by July 4 may not be realized, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has OK'd resuming most activities for fully vaccinated persons, though the agency still recommends avoiding large gatherings.
In South Dakota, where indoor seating at bars and restaurants has largely been uninterrupted, if diminished, other aspects of life have been on hold during the pandemic. And as new infections have drastically slowed — averaging only 13 a day this week — people across the spectrum are ready for festivals.
In Tabor, that means the waltzes, scottisches and mazurkas, and the traditional Czech dinner with sauerkraut at Beseda Hall they last year went without.
"The younger generation, we're ready to go," Linda Bares said. "The (Orange City, Iowa) Tulip Festival, we got reports that they ran out of food. We got reports from Kolache Days (in Verdigre), they ran out of food. Tyndall's Hot Dog Night .... they had a huge turnout."
"We're going to do the best thing we can to keep people happy."
And Tabor will be ready.
"Many people are really ready to open up," Lichter said. "We have to get back to life." But the priest complimented the town on social distancing measures, including moving the famed polka mass to the out-of-doors, so that all can feel invited.
"They'll have more fresh air," said Lichter, who acknowledged this will be his first Czech Days as a priest in town, though he attended as a child.
"Maybe I'll even do a dance."