Festival producer Sal Richetti says he is aware of the controversy that comes with holding "the region's largest heritage festival," according to its website, during the controversial holiday and during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Is there a risk that I’m thinking about based on Columbus Day? Yes,” says Richetti. “But if they want to continue the parade, that’s up to them or their committee. I can’t stop them or make them change or do anything. I’m just kind of piggy backing off of their event.”
Richetti said he chose the dates because of the infrastructure. “It’s easier to do it that weekend, it’s a good tie-in with already closing the streets down for the parade,” he says.
Celebrating Columbus Day has become an object of controversy in recent years across the country, including Pittsburgh. Last year, protesters handed out flyers that falsely said the city's Columbus Day parade was canceled. Kalen Tierney of anti-racism group What's Up Pittsburgh told KDKA, “By honoring Columbus, we’re not telling the true story of him actually setting in motion the transatlantic slave trade and then a massive genocide of native people.”
Just this week, as Black Lives Matter protesters are tearing down controversial statues across the country, the Christopher Columbus statue in Oakland was spray-painted with words including “No more racist rapist,” according to TribLive, with others calling for the statue to be removed. Columbus is often celebrated for discovering the United States in 1492, but he never actually set foot on land that would later become the U.S. He did, however, land on an unknown Caribbean Island, and eventually enslaved some of the native people of that island.
Several cities and states have changed Columbus Day, celebrated on Oct. 12, to Indigenous People's Day, as a way to celebrate Native Americans and other indigenous peoples of the Americas. Columbus Day was created in the 1890s as a show of goodwill towards Italian Americans who had been lynched in Louisiana. Since then, it has become a day that some Italian Americans use to celebrate their immigrant history.
“I’m hoping that protesters won’t be there,” Richetti says of his festival coinciding with this year's parade, “and if they come there and protest, it’s peaceful.”
Richetti says he just wants to have “a nice safe festival for all of the Bloomfield restaurants and all the residents from Allegheny County and the surrounding counties and Bloomfield businesses to enjoy.” He says Bloomfield businesses have been hurting during the pandemic, and they’ve been calling and asking him to bring the festival back.
But, unless new state rules change by October, it's unlikely Little Italy Days will be permitted.
Yesterday, Gov. Wolf announced statewide COVID-19 restrictions banning all outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people, which includes staff. This follows an order placed last week by Allegheny County Health Director Dr. Debra Bogen banning outdoor gatherings in Allegheny County over 50 people, both restrictions put in place due to the recent spike in coronavirus cases across the state, mainly led by a large increase of cases in Southwestern Pennsylvania, particularly in Allegheny County. Little Italy Days regularly brings out thousands of participants.
“I’m just trying to be hopeful and optimistic that things will change,” says Richetti. “We don’t know what’s going to happen two months from now. It could get worse. It could get better. It could be the same.”
Richetti says he plans to follow CDC safety guidelines, including requiring all vendors to wear masks, recommending that all patrons wear masks, and having hand washing stations. He says they will also have vendors be more spread apart.
This year’s festival plans include over 30 entertainment acts on three stages, and Richetti is considering removing seating from stages, or if there are seats, have them spread out.
Discussing this week’s statewide restrictions of crowds of 250 and under, Pittsburgh City Paper asked Richetti what the smallest number of people he thinks he’d be able to still have the event.
“There can’t be any restrictions at all,” says Richetti. “It would have to be, ‘OK, there can be large crowds at events. Steelers can play with fans. Pirates can play with fans. Then I can do it. If they give you a number, then I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how anybody could do it.”
Richetti acknowledges there’s a possibility he will have to cancel the event if things don’t improve by October. But he says he wants to try for the Bloomfield restaurants and businesses who are asking him to make it happen.
Little Italy Days. Thu., Oct. 8-Sun., Oct. 11. littleitalydays.com