First Night Cancels Traditional New Year’s Event

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: First Night , COVID-19

The traditional First Night Chatham celebration doesn’t lend itself well to social distancing. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

CHATHAM For many, the end of 2020 will be a milestone worth celebrating. But because of the pandemic, they won’t be marking New Year’s Eve the usual way at First Night Chatham.

Late last week, event organizers announced that because of the pandemic, First Night Chatham will not be held as a live event.

“It’s a tremendous disappointment,” First Night spokesman John Reed said. More than 300 volunteers look forward to producing the town’s signature, family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration, but protecting those volunteers and attendees is the organization’s top priority. In early May, organizers were hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic would be under control by the end of the year, a prospect that seems less likely now.

“We were kind of waiting to find out what happened in those states that opened up more. And what happened is what the science told us — that they are now accelerating in the wrong direction,” Reed said. The resurgence of the virus reinforced the committee’s decision to cancel most First Night activities, though they are exploring ways to retain a few of the celebration’s elements that support social distancing.

“There are things that we’re trying to explore and investigate, but that’s going to take a little time,” he said. In lieu of the traditional town photo at the lighthouse, organizers are investigating a “walk-by photo shoot” where people could submit their own photos to be included in a large composite picture. People could choose to be photographed in a costume or other garb, “but they would be socially distant,” Reed said.

Another key element of First Night celebrations everywhere is the Noise Parade, which usually involves a large crowd of people walking up Main Street, blowing horns and banging pots and pans. Instead, organizers are pondering a drive-by parade like those used to honor first responders and high school graduates. There might be a way to create a “virtual” First Night party using photos and videos of past years’ events, to be enjoyed by people celebrating at home.

People with ideas about other COVID-safe First Night activities are encouraged to contact the committee by emailing info@firstnightchatham.com.

One thing was clear, Reed said: a traditional First Night celebration, “based on where we are in the virus situation, was just not going to be manageable.”

Most of the venues used for First Night events are small, making social distancing impossible. And the special cleaning necessary to prepare the venues would have been a challenge, and in the cases of schools or churches, some would likely have had concerns about using those buildings after they’d been used by a large First Night crowd, Reed added. There was some consideration of holding at least the fireworks, but it was decided that social distancing wouldn’t be possible either at Oyster Pond or at Veterans Field, he said.

It was also far from certain that attendees would come out for the celebration, and without the revenue from button sales, First Night’s options would have been limited. While the nonprofit does seek grants and donations, “we certainly aren’t going to hit them up when they’re going through rough times themselves,” Reed said.

While the cancellation is disappointing, it’s a temporary setback.

“FNC will return to its traditional live format in 2021,” Reed said. “In the meantime, we will continue to update our progress for this year as quickly as possible.”