As far as set pieces go, the bandstand in Kate Gould Park, when it's occupied by the Chatham Band and surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic concertgoers, is about as iconic as it gets. It's summer, it's families, it's wholesome all-American entertainment; it's Chatham.
A key part of that scene for at least the last half century has, however, been overtaken by changing attitudes and should be retired.
Helium-filled balloons dancing in the air around the bandstand add to the festiveness of the scene and have been an integral part of hundreds of paintings and photos over the years. But there's overwhelming evidence that released balloons pollute the environment and are a danger to marine animals. Even though latex balloons, the kind sold at the band concerts by St. Martin's Masonic Lodge, are biodegradable, they still take time to break down, and in the meantime can be ingested by birds or marine mammals who mistake the colorful shards of busted balloons for food. Despite the Masons' good intentions and efforts to educate the public, including tying balloons to children's wrists, lighter-than-air balloons inevitably escape and find their way where they shouldn't be.
Chatham selectmen last week agreed to extend for a year the Masons' permit to sell the balloons, but there seemed to be a consensus among board members that a prohibition against helium-filled balloons was inevitable. Chatham wouldn't be the first; Provincetown passed such a ban in 2014 and Nantucket followed in 2015. Just last week, Palm Beach County, Florida, enacted a balloon ban to protect loggerhead turtles. There are bans in place in other communities in the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom, and several states have restrictions or prohibitions against launching balloons. But such efforts haven't always been successful; an attempt at a state-wide balloon launch ban in New Jersey was defeated thanks in part to the Balloon Council, a lobbying group representing the balloon industry, which has reportedly spent more than $1 million lobbying against balloon regulations.
Chatham selectmen should develop a town bylaw to prohibit the sale of helium-filled balloons town-wide to put before voters at the May annual town meeting. In the interim, the board needs to educate the public on the reasons for the prohibition, which should go into effect in 2018, giving the Masons time to find another just as brightly-colored and more environmentally friendly fundraiser – such as light sticks or non-helium-filled balloons – for both band concerts and the July 4 parade. In a town that prides itself on its pristine environment and the ecological conscientiousness of its residents, the move seems obvious. We're confident the adjustment can be made without taking the air out of Chatham Band concerts.