Citing an array of obstacles in face of the coronavirus pandemic, the South Pasadena Festival of Balloons Committee on Wednesday night made the difficult decision to cancel the city’s popular Fourth of July Festival of Balloons event for the second straight year.
Following a lengthy discussion on Zoom, the group tasked with putting the daylong event together opted out, saying the potential transmission of COVID-19 still stands too much of a risk for those looking to attend the local Independence Day traditions, including an early morning pancake breakfast, opening ceremonies outside the library’s community room, a festive hometown parade down Mission Street and a fireworks show at the local high school stadium to cap a long day.
Among the concerns expressed by the committee in hosting the Festival of Balloons this year were the current health and safety guidelines issued from both L.A. County and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which they said would limit attendance at the fireworks show. Without the revenue from the show, committee officials say it could fiscally impact future Fourth of July events in town. Not enough children have been vaccinated at this point was another key factor in the decision-making, and an email to past parade participants from the organization asking for interest in holding an event this year drew only a lukewarm response. It all added up to the committee making a unanimous decision following a motion by committee member Jane Jackson to put off the Festival of Balloons until 2022, seconded by Rosie Whitney.
In March, Festival of Balloons Chair Joe Payne was asked to send out a notice to past parade participants seeking their interest in putting on an event this year. He sent emails to 40 separate entrants and received about a dozen replies, and they were split evenly, some suggesting, “We’d like to do something, just let us know what you’re going to do and we’ll see if we can do,” explained Payne, “or the response was that, ‘We haven’t met since March 2020, I have no idea what our organization is planning if anything.’ ”
Among those receiving Payne’s correspondence were organizers for South Pasadena Little League Baseball, youth soccer, church groups, young readers from the South Pasadena Public Library, kids representing summer camp organizations and more.
“Almost all the youth groups are still under pretty strict COVID protocols,” explained Payne, “with the understanding that the vaccine is just now getting ready to be rolled out to those under the age of 16. Eighty percent of the participants in the parade fit into that category.”
He said guidelines from the CDC and Los Angeles County “will pretty much allow for an event like we have, but under very strict rules, many of which I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to follow with the limited staff we have to really do those things. That includes making sure people are still socially distanced. Those that have been vaccinated are now allowed to be outside without a mask assuming there’s distance involved. Those who have not been vaccinated are still encouraged to wear a mask.”
Under the county guidelines, the fireworks show is “pretty much a no go,” continued Payne. “I don’t see how we can really even put the high school [effort] together for a fireworks show under the guidelines. If we were able to, it would severely limit the participation of paying guests, which would severely limit the income we would have from the show, putting our budget in a very precarious position.”
“Unable to maximize the space at South Pasadena High for the fireworks show limits the revenue from the event, which pays for the fireworks show, parade, and park events,” noted Sheila Pautsch, the city’s community services director. “With that said, it runs the risk of depleting the reserve funds that start up the following year’s event as half of the [cost of the] fireworks show is due in February.
The consensus at the March Festival of Balloon Committee meeting, held via Zoom, when discussions of the 2021 event initially began, was holding it “would put us at the risk of running our reserve funds so low that we wouldn’t be able to do it next year without a significant inflow of revenue,” said Payne. “The thought was ‘if there really was an overriding desire in the community to do something, that we would try to pull it off the best we could.’ ”
The 20 to 25 minute fireworks show, paid for mostly through ticket sales, along with some discretionary funds from City Council members and public donations, comes with a price tag in excess of $20,000 each year.
After listening to all concerns expressed by committee member during the April 28 meeting, Payne said, faced with so many limitations, the largest coming up with the necessary funding to conduct an event that goes off without a hitch, “We should bite the bullet, prepare for next year and come back about as strong or stronger than we have ever been.”
Joan Shaw has been a part of the Fourth of July since its inception in 1982 and continues to serve on the committee today. Her late husband, Ted, active in city government and a former South Pasadena mayor, called on a small group to help launch the first pancake breakfast, parade and fireworks show in town.
“I think we have one, two, three strikes against us,” she told committee members. “First of all, no money, second all the children aren’t vaccinated and third, we’re going to have very strict rules [from county health officials]. Plus we only have two months to do it. I think there are just too many negatives. I just think there are too many things against it. I’d love to see it happen, but not at the cost of not ever doing it again.”
Payne agreed, noting: “That is exactly the point. It may be that if we do it and it doesn’t pan out, that we may not be able to do it [in the future]. We’re very proud that we have not needed to tap into the city coffers to be able to pull off our event. I would like to see it continue that way, that we not be funded [by the city]. We’ve had the generosity of groups like Safeco and the council members with their discretionary funds.”
One suggestion coming Payne’s way is to hold crowd funding platform efforts, much like a GoFundMe to defray the cost of the fireworks show in the future. “There’s a lot of potential for that,” he said, “but the crowd funding isn’t going to do us much good right now if we don’t have an event that would be a shell of what it has been in the past. It wouldn’t look very favorably on the Festival of Balloons.”
The Rose Bowl made the decision not to hold a fireworks show on the Fourth of July, joining a growing number of cities curtailing efforts this year and looking to 2022.
“I just think everybody across the board in the L.A. County area are just going to forgo it this year, regroup for next year and lean on their cities to provide extra entertainment [to the day],” said Marty Smith, another longtime Festival of Balloons committee member.
Pautsch said during the meeting she would like to see more involvement and collaboration from nonprofits and other organizations to help take some of the workload off a committee that has been in place for many years. “That might be something we can look into earlier to get information out to say, ‘Hey, what can you do for our parade to be more of a part of it, and help us make it really special?’ We can use this time to make next year’s event really, really great.”
While South Pasadena Mayor Diana Mahmud knows the decision to forego the Festival of Balloons parade and fireworks show this year disappoints residents in the community, she supports the committee’s decision. “There’s simply not enough time to organize either let alone both events, particularly given uncertainty regarding what restrictions would be applicable,” she said. “Hopefully more creative minds than mine can suggest an alternative way for our community to celebrate the 245th anniversary of our nation’s birth.”
Committee members made the decision to meet via Zoom starting on Wednesday, September 22, and look ahead to the next Festival of Balloons just over a year away.
“Let’s ask people to reimagine, to reimagine what they want the Fourth of July to look like,” suggested Smith. “Do they want picnics in the park, do they want more fireworks, do they want certain types of fireworks, do they want a smaller, intimate fireworks or do they want bigger fireworks? This is the best time to reorganize and imagine what Fourth of July can be in the future.”
Based on Smith’s comments, Pautsch said the City of South Pasadena and possibly the local media could send out a community survey seeking input on what the Festival of Balloons could look like in the future. In addition, the survey would serve as a call for help from the public to jump on board and provide volunteer support.
Those looking to be a part of the next scheduled Festival of Balloons meeting on September 22 at 7 p.m., providing their ideas and input, are urged to contact either Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org or Pautsch at email@example.com