By Debbie Adams
After careful consideration for the public’s well-being as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor Ralph Northam’s Executive Order to limit large social gatherings, the Town of Vinton has cancelled the fireworks display and all planned activities and entertainment for the July 4th, 2020 Independence Day Celebration.
“It is with deep regret that the Town must cancel our beloved July 4th Fireworks show,” stated Barry Thompson, Town Manager. “However, we feel that it is our duty as the local government to set the example for our community and protect our citizens, employees and volunteers that work these large events. We look forward to hosting the event again in 2021, when hopefully the COVID-19 concerns have been fully resolved”.
The reasons are twofold—to ensure public safety and to reduce expenditures during these unsettling financial times.
With uncertainty about when Governor Northam’s guidelines for Phase 1 will transition into Phase 2, the town was left with little choice but to cancel the event. Phase 1 limits gatherings to 10 individuals and took effect on May 15. Phase 2 only expands that limit to crowds of 50. The Governor predicts that each phase will extend for two to four weeks. With only about six weeks left before July 4, and fluid guidelines, the town felt a decision needed to be made.
The fireworks contractor could have offered other dates for later in the summer or fall, but town staff felt that the COVID-19 situation is so ill-defined, that all things considered, it would be best to simply cancel for 2020.
The economy also played a significant part in the decision. With FY2021 budget revisions still under discussion due to plummeting revenues, and expenditures being minimized as much as possible, the cost of the fireworks celebration which usually runs between $15,000 and $18,000 seemed a non-essential expenditure at this time. Even in a normal economy, there is serious discussion about the costs of the event, but council elects to fund the celebration for the community each year.
In addition to the cost of the fireworks and the band, the Fourth of July celebration also includes expenditures for overtime for law enforcement and Public Works staff, with set-up, clean-up, and crowd and traffic management, especially this year when July 4th falls on a Saturday.
The town also weighed the costs of putting on the event with potential revenues that might be received. With many people hesitant to mingle in large crowds, turn-out might be considerably reduced.
Given the large crowds who normally attend the fireworks and entertainment spread across the front lawn of the War Memorial, social distancing would be difficult to maintain, and with a deposit due on the fireworks show, the town made the decision to cancel for this year.
Scheduling the event and promoting the close-contact gathering of a large crowd, seemed counterproductive in the interests of the safety of the community and of town employees organizing, setting-up and cleaning up after the event.
Sadly, with the Dogwood Festival cancelled in April due to the pandemic, the crowning of the Dogwood Queen had been postponed until the July 4 celebration at the War Memorial. Now with the subsequent cancellation of the fireworks, discussions are underway about how to still crown the Queen and recognize her court—all William Byrd High School seniors—perhaps at a smaller gathering (under 50 in attendance with social distancing).
Assistant Town Manager Pete Peters said that the town did consider a “drive-up” fireworks display, but given the size of the Vinton War Memorial parking lot, the viewing area available for the fireworks at the venue, and the method of launching the pyrotechnics from the War Memorial parking lot itself, that did not seem feasible.
The Salem Fair has been cancelled for this summer; however, as of May 19, they had not reached a final decision on the fireworks display. Roanoke City has not yet made an announcement about their annual event at River’s Edge Park.
So, risk of exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus and budgetary restraints have led to cancellation of yet another of the many celebrations planned this spring and summer. Peters said the town does not want to contribute to an outbreak of COVID-19. It was also necessary to consider that if there are outbreaks, the state might revert to Phase 1 or even go back to “stay-at-home” regulations.
Peters said that Town of Vinton buildings will not re-open until Phase 2, with much consideration for public safety when deciding which facilities to open and which events to allow.
The Town has also made a decision to not grant any permits for street closures or stage rentals for community events, concerts or festivals during the month of June. Town officials will monitor Governor Northam’s Virginia Forward Plan to reopen Virginia from the COVID-19 shutdown. Once the restriction on large social gatherings is lifted in Phase III, the Town will consider future community events scheduled for the summer and fall.
“The Town would rather be cautious on the front end than having to return to a prolonged shutdown,” Peters said.