Along with cooler weather, fall in the Philadelphia area usually means one thing, especially for beer lovers: Oktoberfest.
The celebration dates back to 1810, when the first Oktoberfest was held in Munich to honor a royal wedding. Since then, the tradition of partaking in German beer, food, music, and games has spread throughout the world, and Philly is no exception. In fact, we’re such a good place to prost that one WalletHub study last year ranked Philadelphia as the fourth-best place to celebrate Oktoberfest in the country.
So, ordinarily, Philly’s streets would be replete with sausage, schnitzel, and German music and dancing around this time of year. But in 2020, as with most other things, Oktoberfests near and far are looking a lot different.
Munich, for example, has canceled its Oktoberfest festivities because of the pandemic. And many — but not all — Philly-area Oktoberfest celebrations, of which there is usually no shortage, have also been canceled. Some area Oktoberfests are still going on — albeit with capacity restrictions, mask-wearing, and social distancing requirements, and pared-down event itineraries.
So: Should you go? Is it even the same? Here’s what you need to know:
What will Oktoberfest be like this year?
Ordinarily, Oktoberfests are social events, with plenty of food and beer and entertainment. But because of safety precautions like local mandates that limit group sizes and caps on crowds, a lot of that is off the table.
“Know that you will not be at long tables like in Munich, with people having a real congregant experience, which is part of the fun,” says Dr. Seth Welles, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “This year, no one is going to be able to do that, and do it legally.”
Instead, this year’s Oktoberfests are probably going to be much more subdued, and more along the lines of the outdoor dining we have come to know, with the usual coronavirus precautions, and smaller, socially-distanced crowds.
So, what’s the problem?
Cutting back on the usual Oktoberfest traditions may understandably be disappointing to some beer lovers. But ultimately, it’s a good decision, considering the Oktoberfests we are used to are “perfect environments for transmission” of the coronavirus, says Welles.
“It’s a good day for food and drink, but it’s a bad year for congregating together in that community setting,” he says.
While many venues and restaurants are taking the usual precautions, like mandated social distancing and mask-wearing at their events and having events outside, one thing makes it complicated, says Dr. Usama Bilal, an assistant professor in the Urban Health Collaborative and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife school. That one thing: beer.
“Alcohol can lead to a relaxing of [following] the rules,” he says. Getting buzzed and forgetting to wash your hands once after using the bathroom, Bilal adds, can “add up into tons of risk.”
Welles agrees, and says drinking makes it hard to maintain the alertness that’s necessary to stay safe. "We often talk about alcohol and drugs being cofactors for risk. They tend to reduce a person’s ability to be careful. It’s the same here, even though drugs are not involved.”
If you’re going anyway, how can you make it safer?
If you’re set on attending some kind of Oktoberfest event this year, however pared down it may be, there are a few things to consider.
The event should be outside, and the crowd should be relatively small, says Bilal. Those elements can help with ventilation and social distancing. “If you feel like you have too many people around you, you probably do,” Bilal says. “If a place seems too crowded, choose a different one. Try to be in a non-crowded situation as much as possible.”
Follow the rules. Whatever crowd there is, he adds, should “respect basic rules,” like maintaining social distancing and wearing masks, even outdoors, because there is still some risk. Wear your mask and socially distance, wash or sanitize your hands regularly, and stay with your group.
Call ahead. Welles adds that you should call the venue or restaurant to check on the precautions they are taking. If there aren’t good answers, he says, you may want to consider going somewhere else because “you want to be sure they are watching out for your welfare.”
At-risk people shouldn’t go. Even in situations where you feel comfortable, don’t bring anyone who has a high risk of severe illness or death associated with the coronavirus. This, Welles says, means discouraging people who are immunosuppressed, have serious medical conditions, or are elderly from coming along.
Generally, you may be able to approach going to an Oktoberfest as you would going to any other outdoor dining experience. Whether it is worth the stress and effort of planning is, of course, up to you.
“I don’t want to say don’t give restaurants your business. But at the same time, you have to ask yourself if you are willing to take on that risk,” Welles says. “Ask yourself, is it worth going through all this trouble? Is it really going to be fun if you have to take all these precautions?”
What could you do instead?
“Why not keep it in your family? Have an Oktoberfest celebration in your yard with your immediate family, or have friends over,” Welles says. “Get lots of German beer, order bratwurst or schnitzel, and throw on traditional music and have your own little festival this year.”
Having your own small celebration at home leaves factors like social distancing, mask-wearing, and crowd sizes much more under your control. And, of course, there’s another added bonus.
“What’s more, if you do get drunk, you just go to bed,” Welles says. “You don’t need to worry about getting a cab.”