Bristol scaling down Fourth parade, most events are postponed

The historic parade will be ‘small’ and ‘local’ this year

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Here’s what they know so far …

There is a 2020 chief marshal for the nation’s oldest, continuous Independence Day celebration, but that person will not be announced until the end of May.

There will be a parade, but it will not be like any Fourth of July parade seen in this town in anyone’s lifetime.

They will hold Patriotic Exercises, but where and in what format is to be determined.

That’s what the Bristol Fourth of July Committee knows at this point. Everything else on the Fourth calendar — the waterfront concert series, the Miss Fourth pageant, the Fourth of July Ball, the carnival … all of it — has been postponed until later in the summer or later in the year. And everything is under discussion, to be evaluated and revisited as local and state governments continue to react to the global coronavirus pandemic.

With every aspect of daily life disrupted or put on hold, with businesses closed, tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders jobless, and with all gatherings of greater than five people considered unlawful, it’s been difficult to imagine how Bristol would stage its grand celebration three months from now. The Bristol Fourth of July Committee’s executive committee has been talking about its options for weeks and it recently came to these few conclusions:

  • They must hold the Patriotic Exercises, as that is what gives Bristol claim to “oldest, continuous Fourth of July celebration in America” (234 years and counting)
  • They will plan a small, local parade, more similar to the town’s Memorial Day parade than to the spectacle most Bristol residents know and love.
  • And everything else is on hold.

This is not the year new General Chairwoman Michelle Martins envisioned. On Tuesday, she said that just two months ago, the 2020 celebration was shaping up beautifully. Bands were committed to the parade. Sponsors were lined up. Things were looking bright.

Then came COVID-19.

Mr. Martins said she recently held a meeting with the town administrator, fire chief and police department via the video conferencing platform "Zoom." The Fourth executive committee then on April 2 meet to discuss their options for moving forward.

There are numerous obstacles to staging the celebration safely. First, there are currently a slew of government executive orders restricting domestic travel and mass gatherings. Secondly, the forces who provide critical security for Fourth events include the National Guard, which has been called to active duty, and numerous police forces, which are all operating at high alert with heightened safety protocols. Finally, there is no certainty about when people will be allowed to gather for any public happenings, be they sporting events or civic celebrations.

Ms. Martins said the committee has no choice — they have to make significant changes to their plans.

“We’re going to scale down the parade to a very small, local, hometown parade, similar to what you would see on Memorial Day,” she said. “We’re looking at a reduced-sized parade.”

She added, “The rest of the events will be pushed back as late as possible.” The executive committee was planning to meet again Wednesday night to discuss how they can push as much of the celebration back and stage events later in the summer.

The committee is between a rock and a hard place in many of these decisions, with financial uncertainty weighing heavily on them. To secure the bands and out-of-state groups, they must pay deposits; some had already been paid. To lock in musical acts and the massive, waterfront stage, they must pay more deposits. To pay those deposits, they must collect money from dozens of sponsors, even while they can’t guarantee there will even be a celebration at this point.

There is financial confusion around all of it, which is why they are trying to postpone most events, rather than outright cancel them.

“We are trying to be optimistic, trying to come up with the best-case scenario,” Ms. Martins said.

For now, Bristol residents can know they are planning a parade. It just won’t be the “normal” Fourth of July in Bristol.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.