BERLIN – Mayor Gee Williams stands by last week’s decision to cancel the Berlin Christmas Parade while at least one of his challengers has plans to reverse that decision if elected.
In an online candidate town hall session hosted by The Dispatch Tuesday, mayoral candidates shared their reactions to last Friday’s news that the annual Christmas parade, tree lighting ceremony and New Year’s Eve ball drop had been canceled as a result of the pandemic. Though there will be no official lighting of the Christmas tree in front of the Atlantic Hotel on Black Friday, Nov. 27, the tree will be illuminated that night before guests to town arrive, shops will offer extended hours and non-profits will sale food and hot chocolate.
While some contenders called the cancellations premature, Williams defended his stance and candidate Ron Bireley voiced his intention to hold the parade.
“If I’m elected I’m going to reverse that decision unless there is more information available than what I have seen in the news to date,” said Bireley, a former councilman, mayor and finance director for the town.
Candidates kicked off the three-hour-plus session by voicing their opinions on the town’s decision to cancel the holiday events. The full video session can be viewed at www.mdcoastdispatch.com.
A press release issued Friday said that while a modified Oktoberfest would be held next month, the parade, tree lighting ceremony and ball drop would not be held because of COVID-19 concerns. According to the press release, the Oktoberfest event will be similar to the Peach Day event the town hosted in August. Downtown restaurants will feature outdoor tents with Oktoberfest fare and refreshments and a fall sidewalk sale will be offered.
Williams indicated he stood by the decision.
“The pandemic has been something that has been an unusual and unpredictable situation since it began months ago,” he said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, I think our approach has been to not be extreme in any way and to try to find a middle course while also erring on the side of caution whenever it’s a tough decision, and I believe that’s just what’s called for here.”
He said the parade attracted thousands of people and social distancing would not be possible. Williams added that officials were exploring the possibility of New Year’s Eve fireworks instead of the ball drop, as like the parade it attracted too large of a crowd to allow for distancing.
“We’ve done so well as a community so far I don’t believe we should reverse course at this time,” he said.
Candidate Zack Tyndall said that as a councilmember, he’d had the chance to weigh in on the town’s annual event schedule when it was created last year but that the cancellation decisions were within the mayor’s purview.
“When I look at this decision I do think it’s a little premature,” Tyndall said. “I understand there are some things planning-wise that people need to be aware of but to me I mean we’re looking at the 50th, potentially the 50th, Christmas parade in the Town of Berlin’s history.”
He said he’d attended the parade many times as a child.
“To me, Berlin is about Christmas,” he said. “Berlin is about a vibrant parade. Whether we have to take into consideration that we would expand the route and maybe modify the parade, so that it meets all the social distancing needs and people can watch from their homes or spread out on the street, that’s stuff that we’re going to have to evaluate as the pandemic unfolds. But I don’t think that decision needed to be made right now.”
Candidate Jennifer Allen said she wasn’t sure how she felt about the cancellation but acknowledged that there was a “tremendous” amount of fear in the community regarding COVID-19.
“Though I was a little surprised we canceled it so early I think it would be very difficult to control the environment,” she said. “Maybe there won’t be a big crowd because of the fear, maybe we could have waited a while to see how many people wanted to sign up to go to parade, that’s all looking in hindsight.”
She added that as she’d interacted with residents during the course of her campaign she’d seen how nervous they were about their health.
“Those people wouldn’t attend the parade,” she said. “I’m a risk taker, I’m a nurse for 46 years. I think I would have gone to the parade. I don’t think I would have gone to the tree lighting. Last year the crowd was overwhelming. There was no safe escape route. I think that just turning the tree on this year is a wise decision. The Christmas parade I go back and forth on.”
Bireley and fellow candidate Bill Todd were more critical of the cancellation.
“If any event shouldn’t be canceled it’s the Christmas parade in the coldest time of the year, when everybody’s got their scarves on around their face most of the time,” Todd said.
He said the cancellation was done prematurely.
“I can understand the concern and everything else involved but I also understand technology and I think if we were to hold the parade and let everyone know, if you don’t feel safe to come nobody’s making you,” he said. “We could broadcast it via the town website or whatever the case may be from a camera at the judge’s podium so they don’t miss a minute. The Berlin Christmas Parade is a huge huge part of Berlin. We all know that. It was as safe call. I don’t think it was the best call.”
Bireley agreed the decision was made too early and said that if he was elected he would reverse the decision.
“I certainly think those events are extremely important, a lot of people like them…,” he said. “If the people don’t feel like coming please don’t. Stay home and be safe. I think most of the people that would be at the parade want to be at the parade.”