COVID-19 could cancel Canada Day events across New Brunswick

For 26 years, Paul Wentzell has helped organize the Canada Day celebrations in Fredericton. He jokes he’s a “poor succession planner.”

But he’s proud of the annual event that packs up to 8,000 people into the downtown core for live music, children’s activities, food vendors and fireworks.

“So I just keep doing it till I get too old or too tired.”

This year’s headline act is already booked and secured with a deposit, said the co-chair of the organizing committee.

But COVID-19 has put the rest of the planning on hold though, he said.

Fredericton, like other municipalities across New Brunswick, is awaiting direction from the provincial government, “as to what we are going to be able to do, if anything” for July 1.

Musical acts like David Myles typically draw huge crowds for the Canada Day festivities in Fredericton every year. (Submitted by Paul Wentzell)

“We’re going to have to make a final go or no-go decision probably within a week or two,” Wentzell said.

New Brunswick remains under a state of emergency, with large gatherings prohibited and physical distancing of at least six feet required to prevent the spread of the virus.

There were 117 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province, as of Friday afternoon’s update.

Premier Blaine Higgs said he told 114 municipal leaders during a morning conference call that some summer festivals and celebrations are “likely to be cancelled or postponed this year.”

“Even once the current restrictions are reduced, I must caution all New Brunswickers … we are not going back to business as usual any time soon,” Higgs told reporters.

Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday the province cannot make the mistake of becoming complacent because of its relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and returning to normal life too soon ‘because we could jump right back into the woods in a real hurry.’ (Photo: Government of New Brunswick)

Asked to clarify whether the province has told festival organizers there won’t be any events this summer, Higgs said he doesn’t think there’s been “an official decree, as such.

“But I think everyone is reading the … writing on the wall.

“There is no likelihood really at this point in time that we could be in a position to have mass gatherings like a concert or like a big festival. That really is not going to be in the cards this summer,” he said.

“And that likely is something that cannot change until we get a vaccine.”

Experts have said a vaccine could take up to 18 months to develop, but at least 70 research teams, including some in Canada, are now working at an accelerated pace, hoping to come up with a vaccine within a year.

Federal celebration will be virtual

Canada Day celebrations organized by the federal government will be virtual this year, Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault announced on Friday.

“In light of the current and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Canada and around the world, our government has decided to celebrate Canada Day differently this year, in a way that will allow us to come together virtually to share our pride in being Canadian,” he said in a statement.

Steven Guilbeault, minister for Canadian heritage, says Canada Day festivities will take place online this year as restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 remain in place. 0:36

The federal government is working with Canadian artists and artisans to put together a virtual program that reflects the country’s diversity, values and talent, said Guilbeault. More details about the online event will be announced soon, he said.

‘Evaluating all options’

Moncton is “evaluating all options including virtual celebrations,” said spokesperson Isabelle LeBlanc

“There is no set timeline to make a decision; however, we do want to be able to provide an update as quickly as possible,” she said in an email.

Moncton will let residents know as soon as possible whether Canada Day festivities, such as these fireworks over the Petitcodiac River, will proceed as usual, said spokesperson Isabelle LeBlanc. (Submitted by Jeff Clements)

Saint John’s Canada Day committee will need to know in May if the restrictions on large gatherings will be lifted, said Mayor Don Darling.

Tens of thousands of people flock to the uptown area every year for the festivities.

“It is a very important event for the local economy, for coming together and celebrating our nation,” said Darling.

“But you know, I think at this stage, we’re not in a normal circumstance,” he said.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling said New Brunswickers had to celebrate Easter differently this year because of COVID-19 and if need be, they will find another way to celebrate Canada Day. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

In addition to COVID-19 “we’re dealing with … a whole bunch of issues related to social and economic recoveries and now we’re sprinkling in … watching the floodwaters.”

Organizers might need to get creative, he said, citing a virtual event as an example.

“Just like we celebrated Easter differently this past weekend, we may find ourselves in a position that we have to celebrate Canada Day differently.”

Saint John funding at risk

A virtual event would save the cash-strapped city some money.

Saint John was already projecting a $10 million deficit in 2021, but because of COVID-19, it now faces a financial hit this year of between $4.2 million in the “best-case scenario” of the pandemic lasting three months and upwards of $9 million if it lasts all of 2020, said Darling.

“We don’t know yet all of the decisions that will be made to balance our books, but we do know that we must balance our books,” he said.

The city’s $15,000 contribution to the Canada Day festivities is “at risk,” he said.

Coronavirus is ‘calling the shots’

In Bathurst, the total Canada Day budget is only about $11,000 and organizers can wait up until mid-June for a decision about whether they have to “pull the plug,” said spokesperson Luc Foulem.

“I’m not going to say it’s a turnkey operation but … we’ve been using [the same] model for a number of years now,” he said.

That includes a family-oriented event at either Youghall Beach Park or Coronation Park during the day, with a variety of activities, games and cake, followed by activities around the promenade waterfront, culminating in the evening fireworks.

Bathurst spokesperson Luc Foulem says event organizers have until mid-June to decide whether to cancel Canada Day celebrations. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

“So logistically, we have a pretty good set of operating procedures,” said Foulem.

“It would be a positive thing to be able to hold that event,” he said, because people have been “cooped up.”

“But obviously that is not of our choosing and it is not of the provincial government’s choosing either. … The coronavirus is the one calling the shots on this, unfortunately.

“So we just have to abide by what the situation is right now and we have to adjust accordingly.”

Canada Day in September?

Wentzell said he’d like to see Fredericton’s Canada Day event proceed, as usual.

But “in the big picture of what’s going on in the world, it’s pretty small potatoes.”

If it gets cancelled, Wentzell said the committee could look into holding a virtual event.

Paul Wentzell said if Fredericton’s Canada Day event doesn’t proceed this year, the organizing committee will pick right up where it left off next year. (Submitted by Paul Wentzell)

Another option, he said, could be celebrating Canada Day on Labour Day weekend.

Wentzell acknowledges it would be unorthodox, but said these are unprecedented times.

“We’re celebrating the nation, right? So you know maybe we look at it as more of a celebration of making it through this, or thanking everybody who worked so hard to get us through it.”

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