For a lot of towns in Vermont, the July 4th celebration is the largest event of the year. It’s a time for parades and fireworks, and a chance to get together with neighbors. But this year, as the state emerges from the pandemic, many towns say it's still too soon to gather.
When Gov. Phil Scott first said that Vermont could be back to normal before the Fourth of July, Susan Hernandez thought there might be hope for this year’s parade and fireworks in Saxtons River.
“When we first heard they were going to be open Fourth of July, we were very excited,” Hernandez said during a recent conversation at the village’s recreation area, where the firework show is traditionally held. “We're like, ‘Yes! Fourth of July is going to happen.’ And we love this whole event.”
Hernandez is president of the Saxtons River Fourth of July Committee. They had to cancel last year’s celebration due to the pandemic, and she says everyone was hoping to get together this year.
“But the more that we started to plan, the more questions that came up,” she says. “Usually the biggest question that we have is, ‘Is it gonna it rain or not?’ But, this is different. This is different.”
Different as in: Should they require masks, and is there a way to check vaccinations?
The committee heard from people who live downtown who had some hesitations about inviting hundreds of people to their little village. And even if the state was open, without a vaccine for kids, Hernandez said the organizers didn’t feel good about having a large crowd in Saxtons River.
“You know our children are the ones handing out the cotton candy, or the glow sticks, or taking money for the Skee-Ball or, you know, the hot dogs, or whatever, and it just seemed like too big a risk,” she said.
Saxtons River isn’t the only community that decided not to hold their Independence Day festivities this year.
Wardsboro, Montpelier, Plymouth and Richmond all reluctantly voted to cancel their celebrations because there was too little time, and too many questions about how the pandemic would play out by early July.
But some towns have decided to move forward.
“We’ve heard from enough people in Milton that they really want to have the event as we’ve done it traditionally,” said Milton town manager Don Turner.
Turner said his town will be holding a full day of traditional July 4th events, from a parade in the morning, to a barbecue in the afternoon, and fireworks at the end of the day.
He says there will be no mask mandate and no social distancing requirements in Milton.
“We want to make sure we walk that balance between keeping the people safe, and moving forward with some traditional celebrations,” says Turner. “And if people want to wear masks, they should. If they maintain distances and so on. But we are confident that we can move forward and have a safe event here in Milton.”
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine thinks towns like Milton should move ahead with their plans. He says the state's high vaccination rate, along with the fact that July 4th activities take place outdoors, mean it should be OK to gather.
“The overwhelming data, dating way back from March of last year, is that it's very challenging to document cases that were transmitted in the outdoors environment,” Levine said. “So I would say those activities should be safe, and I would endorse a town who wanted to carry them out in a safe way.”
Other towns like Colchester, Brandon and Poultney are following a similar path.
In Warren, Fourth of July organizer Susan Klein says they're doing kind of toned-down celebration this year.
“Will it be normal? Not entirely normal, but it’s going to be as normal as it can be, I think,” Klein said. “And we’re all in this together. We’re gonna have to feel this out and figure this out.”
So in Warren this year there will be a parade in the morning, and then fireworks in the evening. But no kids’ activities at the school. No beer garden or shuttle service. And Klein says Warren’s Buddy Badge fundraiser, which encourages kids to run around and find another person with a matching ticket, will have to wait until 2022.
“You know I also wanted to be comfortable,” she said. “And not knowing where we would be by the Fourth of July, I just didn’t want to take any chances of having a huge blow-out event that we then had to unwind. Just too many unknowns. Too many loose ends.”
Klein says she’s not exactly sure how it will all play out. And how many of the folks in the Mad River Valley are even ready for an all-out, unmasked social gathering.
She says next year she hopes it’s all back to normal.
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