Blame it on COVID-19.
While they understood the downtown Swansboro merchants simply want to safely host two big Christmas shopping weekends, town commissioners were reluctant to be partners in events that would draw crowds during a global pandemic. The threat of a potential spread of COVID-19 is too real to consider partnering in a big event.
As a result, commissioners declined to approve a special-event request from a group of downtown merchants that would have closed Front Street to vehicular traffic for two Saturdays, Nov. 14 and 28.
The closed streets – while not a make-it or break-it deal for the two weekend events – would make the events easier for visitors to stay distanced while they moved about downtown, according to organizers.
Originally submitted by the Downtown Merchants Association to Swansboro commissioners for consideration at their Oct. 26 meeting, discussion on the special-event application was carried over to a special meeting on Nov. 2 at which time the application was denied by lack of action.
Commission members sought more information than was available Oct. 26, thus the special meeting.
Jack Harnatkiewicz, owner of Bake Bottle Brew, provided more details for the special meeting.
The Nov. 2 special meeting took place in a hybrid format with two members of the commission, Mayor John Davis and Commissioner P.J. Pugliese, in town hall and Commissioners Laurent Meilleur, Larry Philpott, Pat Turner and Frank Tursi, participating by way of the Zoom online platform. Also participating remotely was Anna Stanley, parks and recreation director.
While the possibility of multiple days closing streets was put forth, Harnatkiewicz told the commissioners the merchants taking part wanted to limit the events to Nov. 14 and 28. Nov. 14 would be in place of the traditional Swansboro by Candlelight and Nov. 28 would take the place of the Swansboro Christmas Flotilla. Both events were canceled months ago by the town commissioners in the face of the pandemic and in an effort to limit the transmission of COVID-19.
Many of the businesses downtown are small, with only one or two employees, according to Harnatkiewicz. So it takes some effort to prepare for big events.
“It puts a big burden on the businesses,” he said. So, “Our plan was to come up with two days.” Not only is it easier on the merchants, it is also easier on the town and the police department as the time for the events would be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. “It’s much easier to close the streets” for a daytime event.
Harnatkiewicz explained that Front Street would be the only street fully closed. The merchants would hire two police officers to be on hand and the governor’s executive orders in place as a result of the pandemic would be followed. “That’s what we’ve been doing already, to the best of our ability,” he added.
On a question from Davis about the potential crowd and what bathroom facilities would be available, Harnatkiewicz said, “I don’t expect a huge crowd.” No plans for portable restrooms were mentioned.
Randy Swanson, owner of The Boro, urged the commissioners to be open-minded as they considered the request to close the streets.
“I’m not here for adversity,” he said. “Seek first to understand.”
By closing the streets, the town would be creating a safer environment for people who do choose to attend the events.
Unlike other towns and cities in Eastern North Carolina who have had similar events, “There’re no restaurants that are going on the sidewalks,” Swanson noted, apparently making the argument that that would allow for more space for the crowd.
He also said the businesses participating would provide the town with a certificate of insurance. The insurance “rider” would limit the town’s liability, according to discussion at the Oct. 26 meeting. “We’ll have riders for every single business that goes outside their walls,” Swanson said.
Jennifer Steele, chairman of the Swansboro Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, urged approval of the event request.
“I think it’s fantastic,” she said of the downtown merchants’ plan. “I think the businesses need the opportunity to help themselves.”
Steele said the recreation board voted unanimously to support the plan.
Also speaking in support was Pugliese.
“We put forth a lot of question … I think you’ve answered them all,” the commissioner said of the revised request. Pugliese also said he was satisfied with the two-day format as well as event times.
Tursi, wanted to know if any public health experts had been consulted by the merchants. The question might have referred to comments by a state official from whom the mayor sought comment. (See related item.)
Swanson said the merchants had not consulted health experts.
Tursi asked if masks would be available at the doors of downtown establishments.
“That is an easy solution,” Swanson replied, indicating he would make them available. And if the visitor refuses to wear a mask? Tursi asked. Swanson indicated he could not speak for other merchants, but said that he would ask a noncompliant patron to exit. “I personally follow that rule,” Swanson said.
Tursi wanted to know how the merchants would ensure social distancing. In the businesses, social distancing is required, according to Swanson. When Tursi asked how a patron who refused to distance would be handled, Swanson said a police officer would be called, if the occurrence is in a business.
Tursi then asked about enforcing social distancing on the street, but answered his own question, “The answer is it’s not going to be enforced,” he said. While the streets are public, Tursi pointed out, the street closed by the town is “the venue.” “It only makes sense if you control the number of people on the street.”
Like Davis, Meilleur wanted to get some idea of how many visitors the merchants could expect for the events.
“I’m trying to get a gut feeling of what your gut feeling is,” he said.
Harnatkiewicz indicated it was not possible to estimate how many folks might come. But he did say, “Whatever the number is, they are coming anyway.” And, with the streets closed, there is more room for people to keep their distance.
Jessica Radley, owner of Sweet Edventures, offered support for closing the streets. She said that shoppers have been so numerous downtown lately that under normal conditions, the sidewalks are so busy she walks in the street.
Davis then asked Ken Jackson, chief of the Swansboro Police Department, for his opinion on closing the streets. Specifically, did Jackson believe it was safer, presumably with COVID-19 in mind, to close.
“I would go with closing the streets off,” Jackson said. “That is my opinion.”
Turner, the commissioner, expressed the difficulty faced by the commissioners in considering this request.
Pointing out that she had lost an acquaintance to COVID-19, Turner said, “I am really torn. Coming into this meeting, I was opposed to it.” But, she added, she has kept an open mind.
Philpott said he had been subjected to citizen comments on both sides of the issue.
“I have been told the board would be irresponsible if it does not close the street,” Philpott said. “And I’ve been told the board would be irresponsible if it does close the street.”
He acknowledged that the merchants had devised a sensible plan. “I realize that going from 10 to 6 instead of from 5 to 9 is much different,” Philpott said. But when the lights come on, it will attract crowds. “It is an event.”
“I’ve really wrestled,” Philpott continued, saying that the events were canceled months ago out of concern for the health and safety of the people. “We’re not trying to take anything away from our downtown establishments … but we need to make sure we are not irresponsible in contributing toward the spread of this virus.”
Asked by the mayor for an opinion, Stanley, parks and recreation director, said the new plan was better.
“I didn’t support the six weeks” plan, she said. Davis pressed her for an opinion on the safety of the event as proposed. “If people want to go, they are going to go … whether we block off the streets or not,” was her reply.
Tursi then provided an update of sorts for the commissioners.
“We are losing the context here,” he said. “It might be good to remember we had our 32nd fatality in Onslow County today.”
Tursi reminded Davis of a comment he made at the Oct. 26 meeting. During that meeting, while discussing the need to keep residents safe while allowing business to go on, the mayor said, “I’m not cheapening life … Someone may get COVID hanging out in our downtown … but we’ve got to live.”
With respect to that comment, Tursi said, “I just happen to hold a differently philosophy.”
In response, Davis said, “I don’t want anybody to die.”
Meilleur said that he “was really looking for ways to make this happen.” Unfortunately, he said his concerns were heightened after he visited a New Bern event where mask-wearing and social distancing were not taken as seriously as he believed they should have been.
Pugliese urged the commissioners to partner with the merchants and close the street.
“I don’t think we have the right to tell people what they can do,” Pugliese said. “I think this is the right thing to do. I think this is a good plan.”
Davis agreed with Pugliese. And, he added, “This event is going to occur with or without the support of the town.”
Pugliese then made a motion to approve the event application, with some changes as suggested in the plan Harnatkiewicz presented. However, the motion died for lack of a second.
Within a few moments, Davis asked for and received a motion to adjourn.
Following the meeting, Tursi made it clear that he had no intention of trying to stop the merchants from having the events.
“What the businesses downtown want to do, they can do,” he said. But he added, “Closing the street would make us responsible. Once we were asked to become a participant, then it became difficult.”
For his part, Harnatkiewicz said the two Saturday events will go on, without the streets closing. The promotions will be low-key, he said, likely utilizing only the social media outreach of the businesses involved.
“That’s the general consensus,” he said.
As for the level of activity downtown during the COVID-19 restrictions, Harnatkiewicz said shopping has been busy since the state has begun opening up.
“I would say … there have been more people around,” he said. “It’s been a little stronger than other years.”
However, these two days in the heart of holiday shopping are special when it comes to downtown merchants, according tp Harnatkiewicz. For some, he said, one day or the other can be a store’s best day of the year.
Marketing and planning for the two days then, become important this year, even with the streets open to vehicles. “I think it will be more difficult for people on the street stay distanced.”
“It could have been a lot safer – from a COVID standpoint – and even from a safety perspective,” Harnatkiewicz said.
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Nov. 11, 2020, Tideland News.