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Maryland State BBQ Bash starts sizzling Friday in downtown Bel Air

Beginning Friday, downtown Bel Air may smell a bit more delicious with the return of the annual Maryland State BBQ Bash.

The barbecue festival will take place Friday and Saturday around 2 S. Bond St. This is the 18th year Bel Air has hosted the festival, though it comes at a different time of year, said Megan Gardner, project coordinator for the Bel Air Downtown Alliance.

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Barbecue teams will compete for $12,500 in cash prizes in a judged contest sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. While those professional victuals will not be available for purchase, the barbecue bash will host food vendors from across the East Coast, along with kids activities and live music.

The event is open to the public from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, Gardner said. Attendance is free; vendors accept cash and credit cards.

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More than 40 amateur barbecue teams will also compete in the event’s tailgate challenge for cash, prizes, and bragging rights.

Teams also will vie for future spots in the annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue and The American Royal World Series of Barbecue competitions; both of those events have already been held this year, according to their websites.

The Maryland event is normally held in August, but Gardner said the organizers settled on October this year to take advantage of the cooler weather. Everyone involved in the event agreed with the decision, she said, as August can be brutally hot, even without the grills running. She said all signs point to keeping the event in October.

“One of our long-standing volunteers said that she was manning her post one year,” Gardner said. “She went to go move and felt the sole of her sneaker melting against the pavement.”

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Jenny Falcone, executive director of the alliance, said hosting the event in October also gave the organization more time to plan and more time for the community to get vaccinated. While future festivals are likely to be held in October, the alliance will need to review this year’s performance before making a final decision.

The event has regularly drawn 30,000 attendees over two days, with record-setting attendance of 35,000 in 2015. Proceeds from the event — registration fees and sponsorships — help the alliance continue its work in Bel Air.

“It’s something that draws an incredible amount of enthusiasm,” Gardner said. “While it is a very large undertaking, it ends up being the largest event in Harford County the entire year; we look forward to it really warmly.”

Last year, the festival was postponed, and then canceled, because of coronavirus concerns. Gardner said that the downtown alliance abides by local and state public health rules . Absent a mask or social distancing requirement at the local or state level, masks will only be required on shuttle buses between the event and pickup spots at Bel Air Elementary and High schools. She said the downtown alliance is in contact with the Harford County Health Department to get the latest guidance from the state and county on COVID-19 regulations.

As of Tuesday, Harford County’s positivity rate was 5.44% — more than one percentage point above the state’s average rate of 3.88%, according to state data.

Falcone said the alliance encourages everyone to use common sense and spread out where possible.

“We just want to emphasize that we are doing everything we can to make sure this is a fun and safe event,” she said.

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