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June is usually a month for cities and towns to mark the end of the school year and the start of summer with myriad events that allow people to socialize and celebrate with family, friends and neighbors.
With COVID-19 as a backdrop, this June is different. Municipalities have made difficult decisions to cancel many signature summer events, while finding creative ways to keep others on the calendar.
Foremost in the latter category are high school graduations, and communities across the state are planning to celebrate these milestones in a variety of ways.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on May 21 provided guidance so cities and towns can hold events to recognize their high school seniors while protecting public health. The guidance calls for ceremonies to be “held virtually or in extremely limited other circumstances” (such as a car parade) through July 18.
From July 19 on, traditional graduations can be held outside under minimum health and safety requirements that include keeping family groups 6 feet apart, discouraging attendance by people particularly susceptible to the virus, and limiting attendance to graduates’ immediate family members. The in-person ceremonies will be allowed only if “the public health data supports the continued opening of our state.”
Communities such as Rockland, Danvers, Melrose, Westwood and Holyoke have postponed their high school graduations until late July or August in order to retain their traditional character, albeit on non-traditional dates. In most cases, communities with postponed ceremonies have planned something sooner to acknowledge the end of senior year.
In Melrose, a recorded call to households from Mayor Paul Brodeur encouraged everyone to blast the song “We Are the Champions” from their front doors and porches at 7 p.m. on May 29, which would have been graduation day. In Holyoke, seniors were celebrated in a car parade as they picked up their caps and gowns – to be tucked away until the ceremony in August.
Other municipalities are going forward with June celebrations that are virtual, socially distanced, or both.
Arlington High School Principal Matthew Janger said there wasn’t enough confidence that social distancing restrictions will be lifted come mid-summer.
“Given the fact that the restrictions have already been extended several times, we feel it is not practical to plan such an important event with so much uncertainty,” he said.
Arlington seniors graduated in a live streaming ceremony on June 6, followed by a car caravan through town on June 7.
In an interview with WGBH, Milton High School Principal James Jette said delaying graduation until late summer seems unfair for students who may have already left town before then. Milton High will have a “drive-through graduation” during which seniors will arrive separately by car, step onto a red carpet for diplomas and photos, and drive away past a line of cheering faculty.
Vehicle-centric ceremonies and events are popular options in communities across the state. Various renditions include a car parade of seniors in Athol culminating at a downtown billboard depicting the entire senior class, and hybrid drive-walk ceremonies in Northfield and Chicopee.
The Northfield Drive-In Theatre played host to Pioneer Valley Regional School graduates, who stayed in their cars awaiting their turn to walk up to a table and retrieve their diplomas.
Graduates of Chicopee High School and Chicopee Comprehensive High School arrived at the football field in decorated cars and walked to separate podiums to receive their diplomas – with a video capturing the event for later viewing.
Marlborough Public Schools came up with a unique strategy, deciding to hold 10 mini-graduation events for 20 graduates each over two days. Haverhill’s Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School held three mini-graduations out over three days in late May to minimize density.
Subdued summer events
As late spring morphs into summer, excitement about time-honored local events like band concerts, fireworks and parades is largely muted this year. While some cities and towns are holding out hope that the Baker-Polito administration will ease restrictions relative to large events and group size maximums, many municipalities have cancelled traditional summertime festivities.
“Typically, most community outdoor venues cannot accommodate crowds while adhering to social distancing guidelines,” said Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson, whose town canceled its 2020 Summer in the Park Concert Series and Independence Day events. “While it is sad to eliminate these signature events this summer, this decision was made to protect the health and safety of attendees, guests, employees, performers, vendors and volunteers.”
Foxborough Town Manager William Keegan Jr. noted that “COVID-19 has really put a damper on what would normally be a busy summer.” His town has not only had to cancel local events such as the annual Founders Day, but is also contending with the cancellation of all summer concerts at Gillette Stadium and uncertainty over when and how the town will see New England Patriots and Revolution fans back at Gillette.
Perhaps nowhere is the “damper” felt more than in the state’s resort towns – communities that literally conjure the word “summer.”
On Cape Cod, Chatham Board of Selectmen Chair Shareen Davis said canceling the town’s Independence Day parade, fireworks display and Friday night Town Band concerts was “not an easy decision to make.”
“These are heartfelt traditions for the town,” she said. “But we are working through this together.”
Selectmen in Bourne, meanwhile, are considering how to salvage the town’s Fourth of July parade, contingent on details in a plan from parade organizers, which would need the board’s approval.
On Cape Ann, Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken reports that all events are cancelled through early July, including the Summer Band Stand Sunday Concert series. Gloucester’s Independence Day fireworks and the iconic Fishtown Horribles Parade are also cancelled, and the popular St. Peter’s Fiesta, traditionally held in June, is postponed to a date to be determined.
As cities and towns grasp for some semblance of a 2020 summer season, local restaurants might be the heroes. Several municipalities are taking steps to allow warm weather outdoor restaurant seating in public spaces.
Needham’s decision to create outdoor dining spaces on the Town Common, Needham Heights Common and Eaton Square has already “been a hit!,” according to Public Information Officer Cynthia Roy Gonzalez. Patrons can take food and beverages purchased from local restaurants (including alcohol with meals) to picnic tables adequately spaced for social distancing.
A similar effort is underway in Peabody, where the City Council voted at a special June 4 Zoom meeting to approve Mayor Edward Bettencourt’s proposal allowing restaurants to offer temporary outdoor seating in Peabody Square, as well as at the Northshore Mall and along routes 1 and 114. The measure sunsets on Nov. 1.
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz recently announced receipt of a $10,000 grant to encourage outdoor dining and easy curbside purchases on Main Street in Northampton and its village of Florence.
“Expanded outdoor dining has long been a desired addition to the downtown experience, and many see it as a critical component of economic redevelopment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Narkewicz said. “We are working closely with the business community to convert parts of downtown into attractive streetscapes for dining, pickup, and easy access. While there are still a lot of details to work out, the city is united around a desire to make this happen.”
Written by Lisa Capone