AUSTIN (KXAN) — Bat Fest 2021, an outdoor celebration of the famed Mexican free-trailed bats that reside underneath the Congress Avenue bridge, was canceled Wednesday after the City of Austin denied event organizers a special event permit.

French Smith, the owner of Roadway Productions, the company putting on the event, said the cancelation came “out of nowhere with zero warning and no concrete explanation.” The event, featuring two music stages along with food vendors and arts and crafts booths, was scheduled for Saturday.

Smith said his problem isn’t that the city denied the permit itself, it’s that they did it so close to the event. He said on Monday he received an email from the city saying everything with the event was good to go.

“They led me to believe I would have no problem holding the event,” Smith said.

Sunshine Run organizers say they were also notified by the city they had to cancel their in-person event last-minute. Organizers decided to go virtual.

Smith said the COVID-19 safety plan associated with the event was already approved by the city, Austin Police Department, Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County EMS. He reduced the original capacity of the event by half, bought hand sanitizer and masks and hired a sanitation company to disinfect areas of the event. He also removed a carnival to allow vendors more space to social distance, bought 14 temperature scanners to do checks and printed signage to remind people of COVID-19 protocols.

“It’s just me and my wife, she’s pregnant, we have two kids and, you know, we’re left with the burden of this,” he said, saying that he’s lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We are shocked and devastated as this is a huge financial blow and harmful to our reputation as event producers,” Smith said in a statement on his company’s website. “Our livelihood was taken away with a single permit denial just shy of 72 hours prior to the event, a permit we filed for two years ago.”

Smith said he also had alcohol permits from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in hand before the city denied the permit.

Harlow Russell says he lost out on weeks of business by focusing on handmaking special cards for the Bat Festival, which is now canceled. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)
Harlow Russell says he lost out on weeks of business by focusing on handmaking special cards for the Bat Festival, which is now canceled. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

He said the cancelation also has ripple effects for the more than two dozen vendors scheduled to set up at his festival– most of them local.

“This was going to be my launch of my product line, my cards, for consumers,” said Harlow Russell, owner of Awesome 3D Cards, who has so far been focusing on business clients.

He’s been handcrafting bat-themed cards for weeks, spending thousands of dollars on them as well as his booth for the festival.

He said he supports COVID-19 safety protocol but he’s sad and mad by the sudden cancelation.

When asked by KXAN for a response, the City of Austin said in a statement it denied the event’s permit “out of an abundance of caution” due to “public health conditions within the City of Austin.”

Here’s the city’s statement, in full:

“Due to public health conditions within the City of Austin, Austin Public Health (APH) and the Austin Center for Events (ACE) continue to evaluate the implementation of special events with due regard for safety.

As we have seen over the last month with surging cases, the COVID-19 Delta variant is easily spread. In this current environment, some events cannot provide for or implement sufficient safety and health protocols necessary to prevent the spread. Additionally, public health conditions continue to strain local medical services, including hospital resources with Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacities. These strains can impact the City’s delivery of emergency-related services and the provision of City services required to support government functions.

For these reasons, APH and ACE have moved to deny the permit application for Bat Fest out of an abundance of caution. We must continue to work together to ensure that our community is protected during these trying times. Each and every person can do their part by protecting themselves and their loved ones by wearing masks and getting vaccinated.”

City of Austin

After a follow-up to ask the city how many other special events permits it had denied, a city spokesperson replied with one example, Austin Pride.

The Austin Center for Events helps facilitate events along with Austin Public Health and the city. On ACE’s website, it tells event organizers to fill out the required permitting paperwork and to “encourage their patrons to follow Health Authority guidelines and the recommendations outlined in the Bringing Events Back: Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Safety Guide for Venues & Special Events where possible.”

Smith said he loves events, but doesn’t understand why other larger events have been allowed to continue and his was denied. He even asked the city if he should cancel his event when Austin Pride was called off. The city continued to say his event was still on, he said.

“I love all events, but it is not right to shut down one and let the others continue,” he said.

Smith said the event has been rescheduled for next year, and he’s in the process with his ticketing vendor to get refunds to everyone. He said an email with instructions on how to do that would go out to ticket holders Thursday.

Russell hopes he can find another opportunity to expand his business.

“I will find another way to launch my awesome 3D cards,” he said.

Why you’ll still see some other events this weekend

When asked why an Austin FC match is still scheduled for this weekend, the city said those aren’t required for the stadium per the Special Events Ordinance. They say that’s also the same for events at Circuit of the Americas and Moody Amphitheatre at Waterloo Greenway.

Live music venues are also holding events that don’t require special permits because they have annual sound permits, the city said.

“One of the great things about the festival in the district is that we have the infrastructure, we have live music venues and comedy spaces that do this 24/7, day after day,” explained Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District hosting Hot Summer Nights. “And we don’t need any additional permits because they’re happening in already-licensed spaces.”

He adds that they feel excited to be able to pull of their events this weekend when they know many others have been canceled. They’ve been working with the TABC to figure out what safety measures they can and cannot require in order to keep their liquor license.

They are recommending attendees be vaccinated and wear masks everywhere, but are only requiring masks for indoor shows.

“We have local musicians and local workers that have been largely unemployed for 18 months so, it’s going to be so great to get people back to work, help people pay rent this month– especially with all the cancellations that have happened,” he said.

“As for ACL, we are monitoring the situation. It’s still over a month away and as we have seen things can change, for the better or worse, in a short amount of time,” a city spokesperson said.

The city says for 2021, they’ve so far denied 26 permits. Most were due to not being submitted on time, code violations on the property and/or a wrong application submitted.

They say they also rejected 29 others “for various reasons including, application not being required for activity/property or duplicate application.”

The city says 29 applications have been canceled, mostly by applicants. Of those, the city says about 14 stated that cancellation was related to COVID, but not all cancelations include reasons.

“154 applications have the status of either Expired or Complete, however, many of these are for situations other than actual special events.  Some are rights of way only requests, AFD only requests for tents and/or pyro, or sound requests for events that do not fit the definition of a special event per Chapter 4-20,” they further explained.