In spring the Flagler Beach City Commission was taking criticism, at least from covid deniers, that its decision not to hold July 4 fireworks and a parade was unnecessary caution as covid cases were dwindling and vaccines were spreading. A county commissioner even called them “cowards.”
The commission looks prescient now. The fourth covid wave that’s been ravaging Florida since late June, filling ICUs and claiming more than a life a day in Flagler over the past three weeks, was well under way. Had July 4 unfolded as in the past in Flagler Beach, with parade gapers shoulder to shoulder and several bodies deep along A1A, and again during the night fireworks show, the city could have been responsible for a catastrophic super-spreader event.
“It’s hard to even comprehend how many deaths and hospital situations we’d be faced with,” Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Eric Cooley said.
As such things go, however, what may be the city commission’s single-most life-saving decision of the pandemic may remain one of its least acknowledged.
Along those lines, the commission on Thursday elected to further delay its First Friday events, which had been slated to resume next month. The kickoff is now tentatively set for December, with the possibility of an earlier kick-off if the ongoing wave lifts. The decision will be made by the city manager, the event organizer and the city’s safety officials (the fire chief and the police chief).
“The safer, the sooner, the better,” Laverne McNeil Shank, Jr., the event organizer, said.
The commission approved an agreement with Shank, the DJ known as “Vern” and the owner of Surf 97.3 FM, to take over the management of the event from Flagler Broadcasting. The agreement mirrors the commission’s wish to recast First Friday as a very local event grounded at Veterans Park in the heart of the city, as always, but primarily designed to benefit local businesses. Shank will be responsible for securing vendors, sponsors, staffing, entertainment and accounting, paying all costs from proceeds and taking 75 percent of all remaining net proceeds. The city will net 25 percent.
In a switch from past practices, food trucks will be banned from the event so as to encourage visitors to patronize local restaurants. As for vendors, they’ll be prioritized: first priority goes to vendors in the downtown area, second priority goes to Flagler Beach businesses, third to those in Flagler County, then to anyone else. Shank will be responsible for maintaining that structure and managing it, potentially requiring him to make subjective judgments and exposing him to pressure from businesses.
Just two free tables will be available on a first-come, first served basis, to non-profit or non-vendor organizations that may want to distribute information at the event, with a waiting list for others, and no chance for an organization to be at a table again until the waiting list has been run through. Again, that provision will require Shank to make subjective judgments, especially when it comes to determining the status of non-profits or differentiating them from political organizations.
Shank was concerned about the “free speech tables,” as he described them, in case their occupants get out of hand–not an unreasonable concern given extreme-right, pro-Trump militants who have been demonstrating with foul-language signs and foul mouths at the corners of Veteran Park every Saturday, to the city’s chagrin.
“The only reason I bring this up is because it has happened in the past,” Shank said. “We all know it can get a little crazy.”
There’s also the matter of those who don;t have a table at the event, Smith said.
“When we are having a specific event I think our ability to control what’s happening within the event gets greater, so we aren’t quite as hindered there as when the park is just an open park space,” Smith said. “We’re very restricted on how we control that. When we have an active event going on I think law enforcement has a little bit more ability to control. You as a commission do and as Mr. Whitson was whispering to me over here, maybe it is worthwhile to consider some rules and I think that’s a great idea, that way you can give your law enforcement direction.” William Whitson is the city manager.
Smith said vendors can lose their right of being a vendor at the event if they violate the rules.
Sponsors of the event will pay between $100 and $300, granting them a table positioned according to the value of the sponsorship. Non-profit sponsors will pay $50.
City Attorney Drew Smith prepared the 12-month agreement, its start date being the first Friday when the event is actually held.
But Shank himself advised delaying the resumption of the event. “We were all set and ready to start it at the right time when we had agreed, but lots happened in four weeks,” he said, “and friends, I have some family members myself, some of my staff are older folks.”