As a gunman opened fire on a cheerful Sunday afternoon crowd at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, organizers of the Watsonville Strawberry Festival watched social media feeds in horror. Then they rushed to re-evaluate their own security plans for this weekend’s fruit-filled event, which is expected to draw more than , people to the city almost miles from the site of the country’s latest mass shooting.
Extra police and first responders will be on site and on high alert Saturday as they patrol the two-day festival, Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker said.
Organizers of the strawberry fest had already planned for security at the entrance and police officers on patrol, but they’re now increasing the amount of law enforcement officers, including the Watsonville Police Department and Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, to secure the two-day festival in the city’s historic downtown district.
“There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to ensure public festivals are secure and safe,” Huffaker said.
Late July is prime season for the open-air food festivals that dot event calendars during California’s hot summers. Mass cookouts accompanied by concerts offer a popular way for cities and towns to celebrate the local fruits and vegetables that make up the backbone of the Bay Area’s agricultural economy.
But when thousands descended this past weekend on Gilroy — Santa Clara County’s southernmost city, known to many as the Garlic Capital of the World — the expectations included live music, pepper-steak sandwiches and the infamous garlic ice cream, not a gunman who would kill three and injure a dozen more at the famed festival.
Security checkpoints are commonplace at large public events and venues, but mass shootings in in Las Vegas at the Route Harvest festival, which left dead and hundreds injured, and in at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed people, have changed behaviors.
San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music Festival has had event staff search bags for weapons and sent attendees through metal detectors, and last year the event implemented a clear-bag policy.
San Francisco police provide security at the festival every year, and planning perimeter security around the concert grounds begins “months in advance,” said Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a department spokesman.
In Oakland, First Fridays organizers said security measures for the monthly community gatherings might be more expansive after the shooting.
But those patrol plans — extra enforcement from both private security and Oakland Police Department officers — were already in the works since six people were injured in an October shooting after a First Fridays event, said Mike Woolson, the event’s marketing director.
“I don’t think Gilroy changed the game for us,” Woolson said. “It was just another frightening reminder of what can happen.”
The garlic festival was supposed to be safe. Christmas Hill Park, where the annual festival is held, bars pocket knives and any weapons. A fence around the perimeter of the expansive wooded area surrounded vendors, volunteers and visitors. The shooter Sunday sawed through a creekside fence to gain entry, Gilroy police said.
Many variables go into security management, but it’s “rare” to have shootings as “horrific” as Gilroy’s, said Evan Barbier, founder of San Rafael-based Barbier Security Group. The group handles security for concerts and specialty events like the Marin and Solano county fairs.
“We’ll see that human nature is one where if they want to do something, they’ll try to get around it, regardless of the measures that are in place,” Barbier said.
Investigators still haven’t officially released a motive for Sunday’s shooting or a reason why the gunman picked the garlic festival. But mass casualties at a popular destination meant to be enjoyed through fair rides and novelty foods is incongruous, said Erika Rappoport, a history professor specializing in food, drink and consumer culture at UC Santa Barbara.
“While eating, your guard is down, you’re not looking around you and you’re usually talking and socializing,” she said. “Everybody partakes in eating, so it cuts down boundaries between people.”
Brian Bowe, executive director of the garlic festival, called the event an “annual family reunion” for the city of ,.
“Gilroy is an amazing, tightly knit community,” he said after the attack.
Although big events are winding down as the school year nears and summer ends, event organizers have been calling their private security contractors in the aftermath of Sunday’s shooting to prepare, Barbier said.
Over the past decade, he said he’s seen safety plans become more “purpose-driven,” focusing on deterring dangerous situations through guard placement and clearly defined duties.
“In the last few years it might be presence at the gate, but now because of incidents you’re bag-checking, wanding or checking people’s pockets,” he said.
Despite the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. — a total of have occurred just this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive — any fear of a shooting at a festival likely won’t keep people from attending.
“The only way to guarantee people would be safe is to never leave their basements,” Woolson said.
Gwendolyn Wu is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. gwendolyn.wusfchroniclem gwendolynawu
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