(Julio Montalvo | Special to The Monitor)

The 2020 Fiesta de Palmas kicked off Saturday with a drive-thru-style food truck park and trajinera dinner boat rides, marking the 15th year of the event and an inaugural effort by the McAllen Convention Center to resume events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of Saturday’s line-up was contactless, like the food truck park and the to-go Fiesta Beer Box pickup planned for the evening.

Other events at the two-day festival, like the boat rides and a concert scheduled for that evening, are significantly socially distanced but still mark a notable return to in-person festivities.

Facilities Director Yajaira Flores says the complex closed its doors on March 16, canceling a Broadway show scheduled for that day.

For the last eight months the center has been closed to the public, freezing the economic dynamo, which Flores says attracts over 600,000 guests and has an impact of $60 million yearly.

“They bring people to the area. They bring people to hotels. We have people from out of town eating at our restaurants, shopping at our retail locations, and so that economic impact trickles,” she said.

This year’s Fiesta de Palmas is intentionally restricted: a maximum of 500 people are allowed on the property at a time, Flores says, people who are required to wear facemasks and participate in COVID screening.

“This is our first attempt to be able to celebrate together again, and we want to make sure people are able to come together in a safe way,” she said.

Flores says last year Fiesta de Palmas attracted about 60,000, a record breaker, and had an estimated economic impact of $2 million.

(Julio Montalvo | Special to The Monitor)

“Pre-COVID, you wanted to increase attendance and increase engagement, always. So you wanted to have a lot of guests come, and that was one measurement for success for a festival,” she said. “The primary thing that we focused on for this event was communication, COVID communication.”

COVID-19 communication and safety precautions are important because the convention center sees Fiesta de Palmas as a first step toward resuming other in-person activities at its facilities.

Flores says the inside of the center is undergoing significant changes, including auditions like actuators for air handlers and HVAC technology, along with lower tech solutions like hand sanitizing stations and plexiglass.

Infrastructure improvements like those and safety measures like the ones developed for Fiesta de Palmas, Flores says, likely mean opening indoor facilities at the convention center and the performing arts center is on the horizon.

“The good thing about this complex is that we have 200,000 feet of indoor space,” she said. “We are ready and we are getting ready to have the facility open in a safe way.”