The Payson Town Council last week unanimously decided to go forward with the Fourth of July fireworks show and other crowd-pleasing summer events, despite concerns about COVID-19.
Many Arizona cities and towns have canceled their fireworks shows, which means Payson’s event, which falls on a Saturday, could draw far more than the normal 20,000.
But Mayor Tom Morrissey said the town should “hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” as the council voted on May 14 to hold the first of the summer concert series on June 6 (then every Saturday until July 25), the Mogollon Monster Mudda on June 20 and the Fourth of July celebration.
Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Courtney Spawn said the Fourth of July falls on a Saturday this year and with so few shows in the Valley, “we will be inundated.”
Police Chief Ron Tischer agreed.
“All these other events are getting canceled, people are going to go somewhere,” he said. “There will be so many people coming into town there will be people everywhere ... they are pretty explicit talking about social distancing. I don’t think that is going to happen.”
Councilor Jim Ferris said the town needs the sales tax.
“I think about what it means to have people here with sales tax,” he said. “I’m just frustrated that we’re looking at it out a month and a half.”
The council approved a full schedule of summer activities — with the sole exception of reopening Taylor Pool. The council wanted to open the pool, but concluded it just isn’t worth it given the extra restrictions on crowds and the shortened season.
“Looking at all these constraints, to put it on for 40 days with only 30 people on the deck at a time ... it isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the circumstances that we are presented with,” said Councilor Chris Higgins. “I don’t see how we can open it.”
Neither did the rest of the council, except for Councilor Steve Smith and Morrissey. The two reversed their vote from a week earlier to support opening the pool.
With the expiration of Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order, Spawn had to make some decisions about Payson’s summer events — and fast.
Not only would she need to prepare staff and the event venues, but “all the vendors and entertainment, they have to plan because it is their business too,” she told the council.
The Fourth of July got the most attention from the council because of its popularity. Payson’s annual event fills Green Valley Park with wall-to-wall family encampments — drawing some 20,000 spectators in a good year.
It’s not unusual to see groups of 10 or 20 people gathered under a canopy grilling, drinking and hanging out all day waiting for fireworks.
The town hosts games such a tug-of-war and potato sack races as well as a pie-eating contest. In between the games, live bands entertain the crowd.
But the social distancing suggested by state and federal officials gave the council pause.
“With this, what are the guidelines we are going to have to follow?” asked Councilor Barbara Underwood.
Spawn listed her staff’s limitations.
“As far as the social distancing, we can’t be the social distancing police,” she said.
Smith suggested the town advertise all the various locations besides Green Valley Park where visitors could watch the fireworks to spread out the concentration of people.
“You can be on Airport Road,” he said. “If we are thinking of what we can do to allow ... a little broader than Green Valley, where people can assemble safely.”
But Tischer cautioned the council, “When you start asking people to spread out, it becomes difficult,” he said. “There will be people drinking throughout the town ... it is not as easy as what it sounds for us to manage that many people coming into town.”
Spawn suggested not having vendors and other “things to attract people to one area” to help with social distancing.
She suggested the town could say, “Go at your own risk, if it is something we are providing and the fireworks are at the set time we launch,” she said.
Higgins agreed the event should move forward, but in a simplified form.
“After talking with Courtney, I think it is the best alternative to have the fireworks, but not have the games and entertainment.”
Ferris said he didn’t understand all the fuss.
“I would like to think common sense would … allow these to take place,” he said. “I go to Walmart and all the kids are there, but we can’t use our playground. Things just don’t make sense. It is very frustrating to me. I would like to plan for this event.”
Underwood wondered whether the town’s roughly $20,000 contract with the fireworks vendor had an escape clause in the event a new surge in COVID-19 cases in June prompts the state to reimpose restrictions.
She agreed to vote for the Fourth of July if “there is a guarantee that would allow us to have them at another time.”
Spawn said in at least one prior year, the town postponed the fireworks to coincide with the Electric Light Parade in December. She assured the council she would put the delay clause in the contract.
Smith said he had full faith the town staff could pull everything off.
“We have a real professional staff,” said Smith. “I would like to empower them to move forward with the events.”
The council voted unanimously to move forward with a contract for fireworks, putting on the concert series and the Mogollon Monster Mudda.