WATSONVILLE—A year after it was canceled because of the pandemic, the Watsonville Strawberry Festival drew more than 5,000 people to downtown Sunday to eat, shop, dance and celebrate the Pajaro Valley’s top crop and the continued slow return to normalcy.
Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department Director Nick Calubaquib said that the number of people who showed up to the event was more than the city expected, but added that his staff and volunteers never felt overwhelmed—the fact that it was one day instead of two lightened up the workload a bit, he said.
“It’s good for our community to be outdoors and together, and feel like we’re getting back to some sense of normal after everything that happened [over the last 16 months],” Calubaquib said.
It was part of the city’s Welcome Back Watsonville summer event series that started with a modified Fourth of July celebration. The Music in the Plaza concert series also returned last month, and the city plans to bring back its Fire in the Sky fireworks show and airport open house next month.
With the number of people contracting Covid-19 rising, a trend that health officials have attributed to the spread of the Delta variant of the virus, Calubaquib said his staff had talked about possibly postponing the event up until three days before the festivities. But he felt the event was too important for the community to be called off, and he added that Watsonville’s vaccination rates (77% partially vaccinated and 67% fully vaccinated) also gave his team the confidence to move forward.
Calubaquib said that Salud Para La Gente was also guiding attendees interested in receiving the vaccine to the downtown Old City Hall vaccination center just a block away from the festival.
“Safety was one of our main concerns,” he said. “We encouraged everyone to wear their masks, and to be as safe as they could while they’re out here.”
He added: “I, personally, am happy that we decided to go through with it.”
So, too, were local businesses that since last April have been in a state of flux because of county and state restrictions. Several nearby restaurants were packed with customers throughout the day, including Slice Project at the corner of Main Street and Maple Avenue.
The pizza joint tweaked its menu for the festival, offering strawberry pizzas and beer floats with a strawberry brew from Watsonville-based Fruition Brewing. Co-owner Brandon Sencion said they quickly sold out of the strawberry pies and nearly tapped the strawberry beer keg. They also sold out of pizza for the day some two hours earlier than they usually do on Sundays.
“It was good to be open like that again,” Sencion said. “It honestly felt like the first day we opened again. The lines didn’t stop until we sold out pretty much … this helps a lot, especially after the year of all take out. It was good to have people back in here enjoying our space.”
In that respect, Calubaquib said, the festival returned to its roots, which date back to 1994. Then, the city established the festival to help the community—specifically, its ailing downtown—bounce back from the economic downturn of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Over the years, the city also added nonprofits to the mix, allowing them to set up booths and raise funds by selling strawberry delicacies in the Strawberry Lane portion of the festival. This year, the festival did not feature Strawberry Lane, but Calubaquib said that the food vendors on hand Sunday agreed to donate 10% of their sales to participating nonprofits.
“That’s really what the festival was designed to be, to bring people downtown, to help our businesses and unite people,” Calubaquib said.