The 2020 Paniyiri Greek Festival has been cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, organisers announced in a statement to press this evening. It’s the first time in its 44-year history that the enormously popular event won’t go ahead.

Festival organisers said the decision came after consultation with Queensland Health, the Queensland state government and the World Health Organization.

Paniyiri organising committee chair Chris Kazonis told Broadsheet that 10 days ago the plan was to assess the coronavirus situation at the end of March, but that subsequent developments both around the world and in Australia led to the committee bringing forward the decision.

“Two weeks ago, we were on track,” Kazonis says. “About 10 days ago we had a meeting and we brought up that it wasn’t looking crash hot, depending on what happens. And in just over a week, most of us started to think differently.”

Kazonis says that at the front of his and other committee members' minds was the large number of elderly volunteers and patrons the festival attracts. The novel coronavirus (now known as COVID-19), which first originated in Hubei province in China in December, has proven particularly dangerous for people aged 65 years and older.

“We have a lot of volunteers that work with all the various Greek associations in the park [during the festival],” he says “There’s quite a few of them who are 70 [or maybe] closer to 85 or 90. The problem was we just could not take the risk that someone in the community would get sick and pass away.

“Personally, I would be devastated if someone contracted the virus and passed away after [attending] our festival. That is the priority, people’s health. We’re not there to make money for the sake of making money.

“A doctor called me earlier from Queensland Health. He wan’t aware that we’d called it off – he just wanted to chat about it – but he said that it was a wise move. [The expectation] seems to be that it will probably peak in April or May.”

Some fans used the comments on an official Paniyiri Facebook post addressing the cancellation to question the need to call off the event so far ahead of its scheduled May 23 and 24 dates, but Kazonis says the decision was made early given the number of stakeholders involved in the festival.

“All of the different associations that fundraise on the day: they’re getting their things together now and we couldn’t have them losing thousands of dollars by delaying it and delaying it, and then [having to] call it off,” he says. “It costs us $700,000 to stage the thing. That’s a lot of money. You add the costs of all the associations being there and it’s mind-boggling. It’s just not worth it.”

The loss of Paniyiri is a major blow for Brisbane’s 2020 cultural calendar. The festival attracts up to 50,000 punters across its two days and is generally regarded as both the longest running cultural festival in Queensland and the longest running Greek festival in Australia.

Despite the setback and the stress of the last few days, Kazonis says that by September the committee will be back at work organising the 2021 event.

“It’s been a nightmare the last four days, trying to do this,” he says. “But I’m pretty comfortable and I think it’s the right decision.”