Masks & Mandolins: World of Bluegrass cranks up in Raleigh with pandemic precautions

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- On night one of World of Bluegrass they call it The Ramble, so that's what we did, rambled from bar to club, following the sounds of the banjos, fiddles, and unmistakable vocals.

Two-time Grammy Award winner Jim Lauderdale was on stage at Lincoln Theater; the sounds of Portland 5-piece Never Come Down pulsed through The Architect a few blocks away

"I imagine you can't throw a rock right now without hitting a great band," said Jesse Stover an audio tech from Virginia.

For Matt Grow and his daughter Georgia, this has become an annual tradition.

"We come for the music. And Georgia said, 'Is the 10th year?' And I said no it's not 10 years. But it's nine. Oh, my gosh," Grow said.

It is the ninth year in Raleigh for this Bluegrass bonanza. But COVID-19 turned it into a virtual affair in 2020. In 2019, it brought 200,000 people to the streets of downtown Raleigh -- with a direct economic impact of more than $18.65 million.

And as plans were being finalized for a return to an in-person festival this year, The Delta-variant surge hit.

Michael Simpson, chairman of the board of directors of the International Bluegrass Music Association, said organizers had serious discussions on whether to move forward with the in-person plan.

"Absolutely, this board of directors has been so conscientious about public safety," Simpson said.

The festival's COVID-19 protocols were in place at the door of The Architect. Ticket holders were checked for proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Gold wristbands on performers and festival staffers mark them as vaccinated.

"We expect our numbers to be down a little bit over 2019. There are still folks, and rightfully so, that are avoiding public interaction," Simpson said.

It's a comeback year for the world's biggest event in bluegrass and Georgia Grow, the Raleigh 15-year-old who's been coming since she was 6, wasn't going to miss it.

"I love playing guitar. I've been playing for probably 10 years myself. So I love watching other people play and listening to lyrics and stuff. It's super-interesting," she said.

While the festival is back in person, some it is virtual. Many international bluegrass fanatics were unable to come because of the pandemic. One downtown Raleigh hotel executive told ABC11 that occupancy rates are down slightly compared to Bluegrass fests of past years. The final economic-impact figures should be released by city tourism officials later this fall.
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