With coronavirus complications leading to the cancellation of Dahlonega’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show, the question looms, what does the future of festivals look like for the remainder of 2020?
Dahlonega will still play host to events on the Fourth of July, but with the main draw of the day being nixed, the celebration joins Bear on the Square and the Dahlonega Arts & Wine festival on the list of festival events affected by COVID-19. But what does this mean for the busy fall festival lineup?
At the moment, Dahlonega Mayor Sam Norton says everything is still on.
“We hope to have a very event-rich fall. Everything’s on the table for the fall that has been traditionally,” he said. “It appears that all the event producers are moving forward with the loosening of the restrictions so all the events that we traditionally have, we should have this fall.”
That seems to include Dahlonega’s largest festival of the year, Gold Rush Days, which takes place each October, as Dahlonega Jaycees President Dathan Harbert said he feels “very confident” that the festival will happen as scheduled.
“The Gold Rush Days Festival group is continuing to plan for the event to take place,” he stated. “We meet often to discuss preparation plans and have been in contact with our vendors and community organizers...At this moment, we are very confident that Gold Rush Days Festival will continue and will be held the third weekend in October.”
Harbert said he never imagined anything keeping Gold Rush from happening before this pandemic began.
“I would never have imagined the impact that COVID-19 would have on our lives in so many different ways,” he said. “It is definitely unprecedented to be discussing Gold Rush's fate. The festival will be celebrating 66 years in 2020.”
And while there will likely be some who decide to sit out on this year’s fest for social distancing, Harbert said the community has largely pledged their support of having the festival.
“We have actually had a lot of support for the festival with people encouraging us to go ahead with the event,” he said. “I think everyone is looking forward to some fall festival fun and are really looking forward to Gold Rush. We have been grateful for everyone's encouragement.”
And while the festival may look different from year’s past, Harbert and the rest of the Dahlonega Jaycees are committed to making it happen.
“Our team will work to do whatever it takes to bring Gold Rush to Dahlonega,” he said. “We are planning different scenarios now and are ready at a moment's notice to proceed with best practices as needed.”
With decisions surrounding the fireworks show needing to be made early, Norton said he wanted to “err on the side of caution.”
“About a month ago, there was a fork in the road where we had to determine if we could move forward with our traditional fireworks show, and at that time, the University of North Georgia’s Drill Field was not available because of the COVID-19 and also our business sponsors were not in a fiscal situation to make contributions to fireworks,” Norton said. “...The third leg on that decision was the fact that we were unsure how active the virus would be at the time, so we had to err on the side of caution and public safety.”
Between the effects COVID-19 has wreaked on local business owners, who normally chip in through donations and sponsorships, the closing of UNG’s campus, where the show normally takes place, and the overall efforts of social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, Norton said having the celebrations as normal just wasn’t an option.
“It’s typically done by donations and sponsorships, from private business which really wasn’t an option this year because businesses got hit so hard economically that they didn’t have a lot of discretionary funds for the celebration,” he said. “And also we didn’t have a venue with the drill field being closed.”
Making the arrangements for the annual fireworks show takes a great deal of planning, which meant the decision had to be made early.
“The lead time on fireworks is more significant than most people are aware of,” he said. “It may be 45 days or longer in advance you have to make that decision to secure insurance and also a vender and operator and financing and the risk management agreements and all of that has to be done way in advance of the actual event.”
Norton knows the fireworks will be sorely missed.
“Dahlonega is a hugely patriotic community and fireworks and the Fourth of July celebration are very important to the public,” Norton said, “…But in today’s climate, of the pandemic and the economic downturn, it was just not an option this year, but we really look forward to next year having a bigger and better one and celebrating even larger next year.”
The mayor says he understands the community’s disappointment, but hopes normalcy will return to the event next year.
“We hope that we’re not judged to the same standard as last year's event, or next year’s event, because neither one of those had these extenuating circumstances,” he said. “So in light of the current situation that we’re in with the pandemic, we hope that the public sees that we’re still trying to celebrate the Fourth of July and all of the significance of that event, but we’re also limited in what we can do where we weren’t in previous years and hopefully won't be next year.”
And while unfortunate, Norton feels they made the right decision.
“When we were having those discussions, the virus was running rampant in Georgia, as it still is, so we had to make that decision then,” he said. “In hindsight, it appears to be the right decision because it doesn’t look like it’s appropriate to have large groups of people, even though some events are participating….so I think it was the right decision at that time.”
Dahlonega’s Fourth of July revised celebration this year will have food trucks, music and a show by the Dahlonega Action Dogs starting at 11 a.m. Prior to that Radford Windham and Step Back Cadillac will take the stage at Hancock Park on Friday, July 3.
Tourism Director Sam McDuffie said it will still be a decent draw for those looking to celebrate, despite not having a fireworks show in the city.
“I think we will still have a decent turnout for 4th of July and the Dahlonega Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program have put together a good event with activities that will be enjoyed by the visitors in Dahlonega during the Fourth of July,” McDuffie stated. “With Iron Mountain Resort offering a firework show, I think that this will give an opportunity to visitors and locals to check out the Iron Mountain property and see what all they offer.”
McDuffie said that tourism in Dahlonega has picked up as restrictions continue to loosen.
“Tourism has picked up quite a bit,” he said. “We are seeing a lot of people from all over the Southeast. Speaking to guests that stop by the Visitor Center, a lot of them are visiting from Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and metro Atlanta.”
Norton expects the fall to be a step toward the Dahlonega people have come to know and love.
“We look forward to a very busy tourist season with the turning of the leaves and Gold Rush and a good wine season,” he said. “We look forward to having all the tourists back up for all the events we traditionally are accustomed to seeing.”