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Masks mandated for most at West Virginia's Bridge Day

FILE - In this Oct. 9, 2019 file photo, the New River Gorge Bridge is seen from Fayette Station in Fayetteville, W.Va. A West Virginia program that offers cash incentives for out-of-state workers to move to the state has welcomed its first round of new residents and has opened up applications for more. The goal of the program is to leverage one of West Virginia’s most appealing assets, its epic natural beauty, to stem the tide of population loss. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP, File)

By JOHN RABY Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s largest annual festival will require most people in attendance to wear masks when Bridge Day is held this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic in America’s newest national park.

Tens of thousands of people typically show up on the third Saturday of October to watch parachutists, zip liners and rappellers on the 876-foot-high (267-meter) New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville.

Masks will be required at the festival regardless of vaccination status, and social distancing must be observed whenever possible, the Bridge Day Commission said in a statement.

“Our number one priority remains the health and safety of our guests, staff and community,” the statement said. “We are taking the suggested and appropriate measures to ensure a safe environment for Bridge Day 2021.”

People come from across the world to attend the event. Festivalgoers typically line the center of the 3,000-foot-long (914-meter) bridge shoulder to shoulder trying to get a good look at parachutists catapulting themselves off the nation’s third-highest bridge.

Exceptions to the mask mandate include those at the time of their participation — be it in the air, during a 5-kilometer run, while rafting in the New River or on a zipline. But they’ll have to mask up before and after, the statement said.

Social distancing will be next to impossible on the crowded bridge itself, but organizers said it will be required on the festival’s perimeters.

Bridge Day is the only day of the year that the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic.

At least this year’s festival is still on, for now. The pandemic forced last year’s event to be canceled.

The announcement on Bridge Day’s Facebook page prompted responses that included praise from a vendor who has a 2-year-old daughter, criticism from others who won’t attend with the mask mandate and some who questioned why masks are required at an outdoor event.

Festival officials say they will follow CDC guidelines along with guidance from health officials.

Fayetteville is only a few minutes from Oak Hill, where some workers and volunteers at last weekend’s Oak Leaf Festival tested positive for COVID-19. The festival started Saturday, but most events scheduled for Sunday were canceled after the positive tests were disclosed, Oak Hill City Manager Bill Hannabass told news outlets.

In a statement Sunday, Fayette County health officials encouraged anyone who attended the Oak Leaf Festival on Saturday to consider themselves exposed and get tested for the coronavirus.

“From the timing, it appears they had contracted COVID before and didn’t know it and their symptoms showed up during the festival, but I think it’s the prudent thing to do to cancel immediately when we found out,” Hannabass said.

The city has put any future festival events on public property on hold until further notice, Hannabass said.

The sharp rise in statewide virus cases over the past month prompted several other popular events to be canceled, including last weekend’s Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg, the Mothman Festival Sept. 18 in Point Pleasant and the Mountain State Forest Festival in early October in Elkins.

The number of positive virus cases last week in West Virginia, nearly 7,800, were the second-highest for one week since the start of the pandemic and there currently are a record 247 virus patients in hospital intensive care units, according to state health data.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.