It’s all coming back in Flagler Beach: First Friday returns for the first time in nearly two years, on Dec. 3, the Holiday Parade returns for the first time in two years, on Dec. 4, including Santa parachuting a plane. And kicking it all off–or plugging it in–will be the big light-up in holiday lights of the pier, Veterans park and participating businesses, also on Dec. 3.
The Flagler Beach City Commission signed off on all three toward the end of a marathon meeting Thursday night, winning over even the reluctant Jane Mealy, who three hours earlier had heard Bob Snyder, the director of the Flagler Health Department, caution the commission that while all trends are for the better, covid is still claiming new victims, and the virus is not yet defeated. But it is in sharp retreat.
“I don’t know that I’m 100 percent,” Mealy said. “I’m still going back to the things that Bob Snyder said: there is still a virus out there.” But, Mealy said, giving in to the mob of cheer in the room for holiday cheer, “I’ll go for it, yes.”
“We’re all in favor of this and I think it’s a fantastic idea to tie it all together,” said Vern Shank, the DJ known as DJ Vern, owner of Surf Radio and now the city-hired organizer of First Friday events, which for the past many years had been run by Flagler Broadcasting. Back in June, the First Friday had been set to return in September, but covid’s delta variant had other ideas. The event was again cancelled month after month. Confirmed infections are down to about a dozen a day. “The morale needs to be brought back, and no better time to do it than Christmas, right?”
The “Starry Nights” idea actually started last year. The Flagler Beach Business Bureau and the Tourist Development Council–the county’s tourism bureau–are now planning a two-month-long event that starts in late November and runs through New Year’s, lighting up businesses and city landmarks down to lifeguard chairs while encouraging every local business (and homes) to participate.
“Instead of traveling to St. Augustine, instead of traveling to Disney, I want to enjoy our little town,” says John Lulgjuraj, owner of Oceanside Bar and Grill at the south end of town. “we’re not asking businesses for any money but just to invest in themselves. We’ve all agreed to make this a new staple event during the slowest time of year but also making it safe.” The event is banking on more awareness among residents and businesses: lighting up residents’ homes is obviously encouraged.
December and January are slow months for local businesses. The Starry Nights concept is intended to draw visitors to the island like moths to a light.
“Not only are we going to have a First Friday, we are going to have a big First Friday,” Commission Chairman Eric Cooley said. He wasn’t being a cheerleader at that point, but speaking of the caution needed ahead as the city coordinates and decorates Veterans Park, a caution City Manager William Whitson shares. “Not to throw water on it,” said Whitson, who has quickly made his mark as the commission’s reality check–or ground wire–“if we have too many different things going on, we’re going to create a safety problem that we didn’t intend.” He was addressing the layout of Veterans Park, where there are discussions of having particular decorations, possibly Christmas trees, possibly artificial snow.
“We’re making the event a destination. That’s big,” Cooley said.
The question about the parade, as Commissioner Rick Belhumeur put it, was whether it was too late to start planning.
“Not too late, we have people ready to pounce,” Mayor Suzie Johnston said. There’s been discussions about the Flagler Education Foundation–the school district’s non-profit arm–taking it over from the Flagler Beach Rotary. But based on Thursday’s decision, the Rotary was still going to consider keeping it, and Johnston said that was the likely sponsor, with collaboration from the foundation. (Johnston is the city’s point person on the parade.)
The next question is size. “That is the key to it,” Whitson said. “The concern with Covid is crowds gathering in close proximity for long periods of time, even if it’s outside. There is still the delta variant. So, if I had any suggestion to the commission, it would be let’s make the parade shorter. Let’s cap it maybe at 40 entries.”
The last Christmas parade had 100 entries, 89 of which actually took part in the eternal cortege. Whitson and Johnston have been participating in the commission-appointed July 4 committee, which is reevaluating the city’s Independence Day festivities ahead of recommendations to the commission this January. This week the committee heard Whitson’s proposal to end the July 4 parade, an idea that had little support, but coalesced around an idea that had unanimous support: shorten the parade. Johnston also sits on that committee, and she put forth the proposal of capping it at 40.
So she was essentially preparing the groundwork by doing the same with the Christmas parade. Cooley raised an objection, finding the cut from 100 to 40 “a little significant.” Johnston noted this isn’t an election year (candidates for office tend to lengthen the city’s parades by blocks and blocks). So they agreed on 50 entries.
“Would we still have Santa jump out of an aeroplane and land on our beach?” Commissioner Deborah Phillips asked.
“I don’t see why we would not. That’s something that put us on the map,” the mayor said. It’ll be on Saturday, Dec. 4, at 1 p.m.
But there will be new restrictions: no more throwing candy from the floats and vehicles (that was actually a previous rule that participants did not necessarily respect), no handing out of flyers, which created a trash issue.