GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — The Gallipolis In Lights Committee is developing a plan to keep the lights on, safely, during a Christmas season that has to take a pandemic into consideration.
The light show which illuminates Gallipolis City Park has become a holiday tradition in the area, attracting arguably thousands over the course of its annual run (from Thanksgiving to New Year’s), as well as packs the park for its annual tree walk and park lighting, the latter of which is traditionally held the day before Thanksgiving.
Committee members addressed Gallipolis City Commission this week about how they hope to turn on the lights, taking COVID-19 concerns into consideration.
Shari Rocchi and Lori Kelly of the committee attended the meeting, with Kelly telling commissioners their group had been in communication with the Gallia County Health Department to address any concerns and to receive guidance on a plan of action to safely offer the light display for public viewing. The health department will have to approve that plan which is still being developed.
Kelly noted, due to the large crowd that gathers during the night of the park lighting, that event cannot take place this year and there will be no fireworks. Instead, the group was looking at hosting a virtual park lighting on its Facebook page. The lighting time and date will not be given to avoid attracting a crowd but it will be filmed and that premiere date and time will be announced so viewers can still witness the park being lit, though virtually and safely.
With nearly 200 trees participating in the tree walk last year, organizers are also looking at stretching the tree walk out over several days. This will allow participants to still decorate their tree but at designated times to allow for smaller gatherings in the park. If these plans are approved, these times will be posted and more details given to participants.
Though commissioners were supportive of the GIL display and finding a way for it to return, there were concerns expressed about keeping the public safe and questions of any liability.
Kelly read a letter from the Gallia Health Department emailed to the committee and copied to the president of the city commission, that expressed the main areas of concern were the annual tree lighting ceremony and tree walk (decorating), events which exceed the public gathering limitations, and instructed there be proper signage and a social media campaign to encourage social distancing if a person chooses to enter the park during the season. It was also suggested signage include instructions to those at high risk, explaining there is the option of driving around the park, without entering it to view the lights. Kelly added there will be a radio station frequency drivers can tune in to listen to Christmas music sync with the dancing tree display.
Commissioner Mike Brown said he supported the display, and the “boost” it brings to the community, but had concerns about it attracting people from out of the area in regards to the virus.
“Are we going to be responsible in any way?” Commissioner Tony Gallagher asked City Solicitor Brynn Noe concerning liability.
“I think what she’s (Kelly) saying is, the way I’m interpreting it too is, if there’s not an actual event being held at the park, even though there are lights there that are attractive to people to come to the park, it’s not an event being held…so if people come to the park to see the lights and choose to get out of the car, they are doing that on their own volition,” Noe said, saying it’s similar to anyone choosing to visit the park at any time on their own volition. “I think as long as the health department is giving the go ahead, then that protects everybody.”
Noe said she would also reach out to the health department if the commissioners’ desired.
“I do personally think that during this pandemic we do need something joyful and something to look towards,” Kelly said, while explaining the committee didn’t want to put anyone in “jeopardy,” which was why it has sought guidance from the health department.
City Manager Ted Lozier asked if the committee would be willing to pull the plug (literally) on the event during the season, if, worst case scenario, the COVID-19 numbers went up and transmission began to spread. Kelly and Rocchi both indicated if the situation deteriorated, the lights would be shut off. Kelly added later, the committee would be “responsible” and “pull the plug” if warranted, during a constantly changing landscape in regards to the virus.
Kelly also said in regards to the tree walk, the committee was working towards documentation explaining purchase guidelines and could add the possibility of the lights being shut off at any time in response to the scenarios Lozier presented.
“I feel like you guys are doing a good job looking at all the bases, taking all the precautions you can,” Commissioner Beau Sang said. “I look forward to it every year and I know the community does as well.”
Commission President Cody Caldwell said he agreed with Commissioner Brown but this year’s light display has the “possibility to work the way social distancing is intended,” noting it is outside and opportunities to see it are held over an extended period of time.
“There’s no rule book for this (COVID-19) for anyone in business and government so we’re following the leadership of the health department and communicating with them on how we can do this correctly…” Kelly said.
Volunteers typically begin the process of decorating City Park in October. The committee has also dealt with the cancellation of major fundraising events this year due to COVID-19, though, as stated at the meeting, the plan is to continue the display if at all possible for 2020.
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Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.