For the first time in 22 years, Flagler Beach will not hold its traditional July 4 parade and fireworks, nor will Palm Coast hold its own Independence Day festivities, which would have normally taken place in Central Park on July 3.
The latest casualties of the coronavirus emergency, the two cities are cancelling their events as the virus is still rampant, social distancing would be impossible, and the $45,000 the two cities rely on from the Tourist Development Council to pay for their events is not available.
Flagler Beach’s parade and fireworks were last cancelled in 1998 as that season’s wildfires had raged through the region, forcing an evacuation of Flagler County on Independence Day weekend. Both parade and fireworks were rescheduled to that year’s Labor Day. No such possibilities are considered this year, at least for now. Palm Coast has been uninterruptedly hosting its own Independence Day fireworks show since 2011. Mayor Milissa Holland confirmed this morning that the event has been scrapped.
The Flagler Beach City Commission never took a formal vote to cancel the events, though it approved the cancellation by consensus at a workshop in late April. The decision was to be ratified by vote at last week’s commission meeting, but it never made it to the agenda.
“We’ve been talking about 4th of July in a lot of different meetings and we need to get that wrapped up,” Commissioner Eric Cooley told City Manager Larry Newsom. “Is this something we can ask you to do to get a position or finalization on that?”
“If I understand correctly, we’re not doing 4th of July, correct?” Newsom said.
“Is there anything formal we need to do with that?” Cooley asked. There wasn’t, in Newsom’s view. “I will take care of the PA,” Newsom said, apparently referring to a public announcement.
At a workshop a week earlier, all five commissioners and the mayor had agreed to scrap the events in favor of something more modest, not yet defined. “Can we just agree that we will cancel the parade and the fireworks and if the mayors come up with some plan for other activities, maybe we could revisit that,” Jane Mealy, who chairs the commission, asked her colleagues in a Zoom session.
“Absolutely,” Newsom said. “What we’ll do is we’ll actually put it on the agenda for the board meeting so the board can actually vote on it, that way it’s very clear,” Newsom said. “I appreciate the input on this. I think [City Clerk Penny Overstreet] doesn’t have a problem to make it an agenda item on the next board meeting.” (It was not on the May 14 agenda.)
Newsom at that April 30 workshop had made the case for cancelling the events.
“It’s going to be challenging because the 4th of July typically is a $25,000 tab, and I and I’m going to give you my opinion, take it or leave it,” Newsom said. “My opinion is is that we take the Fourth of July this year, We may do something in the park small, but all the hoopla with the 4th of July, and that’s the parade, that’s the fireworks, my opinion is we just we just play it for next year when we’re back on our feet as a country, as a state and as a city.”
He said the $25,000 expense, usually subsidized by the Tourist Development Council, “they don’t have it,” nor could the city secure the usually free buses from the mainland’s parking lots to the island. “At the end of the day just for this year, maybe we just tone it down, have a couple of games out in the park and just keep it very simple. We can talk about next year once we get through this year.”
Commissioner Eric Cooley seconded the approach. “We don’t know where our capacities will be,” he said, referring to allowable indoor capacities at restaurants and retail businesses. Currently, the allowable customer capacity is at 50 percent, and state orders still require that public gatherings be limited to groups of 10 or fewer.
“It doesn’t do you any good to have 4th of July, over 50,000 people downtown, if our restaurants are only at 50 percent capacity,” Cooley said. “There is no way you can social distance on the 4th of July. You can’t do it in a parade, you can’t do it in the evening, it’s just not going to happen. We don’t know where this thing is going to be. I think having a nice beach day where everybody can spread out in the sand, and after the beach day they can get the sunshine and they can enjoy their own celebration in their own way, I think that’s a very safe and smart way to go, because to bring crowds in where we don’t know where capacities are going to be, and the ability to even be able to social distance: it’s far too risky.”
There are grim precedents in the way a virus can spread uncontrollably at parades, the most infamous being Philadelphia’s so-called Liberty Loan Drive parade in late September 2018, intended to build support for American soldiers in World War I. Wilmer Krusen, the city’s public health director, had been under intense pressure to cancel the parade as the influenza epidemic had been claiming casualties in other cities. Philadelphia had not been spared (its hospitals had admitted 200 people with influenza symptoms the day before the parade) but was suffering much less than other communities. Krusen gave the go-ahead.
The parade drew 200,000 people and stretched over two miles. Just two days later, Krusen issued a statement: “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments.” Three days after the parade, 117 people dies of the epidemic in Philadelphia. “That number would double, triple, quadruple, quintuple, sextuple,” John Barry wrote in “The Great Influenza,” his 2004 book. “Soon the daily death toll from influenza alone would exceed the city’s average weekly death toll from all causes—all illnesses, all accidents, all criminal acts combined.” (The book influenced George W. Bush and the development of social distancing protocols currently in effect.)
“If we if we take the 4th to July and we bring it out here and we get a big spike in this virus, then what we’ve done is we’ve hurt everything we’ve done to this point in time,” Newsom said at the workshop.
Flagler Beach Mayor Linda Provencher, a champion of the events, had been having conversations about them with Amy Lukasik, the county’s tourism director, and Holland. “Because there’s no bed taxes right now, that $45,000 that they give to us and Palm Coast for the fire works would be a nice chunk to take out of their budget,” Provencher said. The county’s $2 million tourism revenue is drawn from the sales surtax on hotels, motels and short-term rentals. “We have tossed around a couple of ideas that could possibly help the businesses and possibly the residents but without overwhelming our beaches by bringing people here for fireworks. So I agree with Eric. We don’t know where we’re going to be at in two months, and I can’t imagine inviting 50,000 people to our beach when we don’t know what’s going to happen, because the worst thing that could happen is we spike and all a sudden to shut everything back down and start from square one. There are some discussions going on, some ideas, we’ll be happy to share those when it’s time for some action. But Palm Coast isn’t going to be having fireworks either at this point.”
“When you don’t know what you’re planning for, how can you plan for it?” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said. “And of course the money is a big thing too.” Commissioners Ken Bryan and Deborah Phillips also agreed.