Bridge Day 2021 is still on, but it won't feature its centerpiece calling card.
At Wednesday's Bridge Day Commission meeting at Fayetteville Town Hall, representatives responsible for organizing the members of the BASE jumping community who have taken part in the Fayette County event (nearly) every October for more than four decades indicated BASE jumpers won't be involved in the 2021 event.
Both Marcus Ellison and Mark Kissner said it was a difficult decision, but one they felt had to be made on behalf of the BASE jumpers and the overall community as the event looms closer with uncertainties still lingering whether it will ultimately be canceled amid continuing Covid-19 concerns and medical care capacities that could be limited on Oct. 16.
Kissner's and Ellison's letter to BASE jumpers and to the Bridge Day Commission read:
"After careful consideration of the concerns of the citizens of Fayette County, we regret to inform you that there will not be BASE jumping at Bridge Day 2021, should the event actually be put on. We have worked alongside Fayetteville's business owners, elected officials and townspeople as a team since Bridge Day 2015, and feel that we cannot ignore their overwhelming desire to not have the event in the middle of the current Delta Covid public health emergency.
"Like everyone else, we wish that Bridge Day 2021 could be the normal, fun-filled and adventurous day that we all love and look forward to all year. Prior to Covid, there are lots of scenarios we could have never imagined, like not having Bridge Day two years in a row. But the situation in West Virginia, and Fayette County in particular, is also unimaginable.
"Aside from the local citizens' and government's desire to not have the event, there are several factors in this decision. First and foremost is safety. The local hospitals are at capacity treating Covid patients, and any injuries at Bridge Day could face hours of delays getting admitted. This alone is enough for us to cancel. While we jumpers all calculate and take risks while jumping, we as organizers cannot calculate the risk of not getting prompt treatment.
"The Covid situation has also created a resource shortage in Fayette County that includes bus drivers. For the locals, this means their kids can't get to school and for Bridge Day that means long lines waiting to get back to the top, and getting around the event. The current forecast of the shortage of drivers is bad, and by the time the event would go on, could result in near gridlock. Other event issues include the possibility of an early stop of jumping due to an ambulance shortage. Most of the ambulance transports at the event are for sick and injured spectators (12-15 per year), and once those ambulances leave, they will not likely come back due to the wait times at the hospitals.
"Finally, as previously reported, masks are required at the event in line, walking around, on the buses, etc. While we know most will comply, we also know that there will be issues with this, and that this will further impact the flow of transportation. Masking will be enforced by event authorities, adding to the overall negative Covid vibe. None of this sounds like a recipe for a fun day, and the result is that we feel it is in the best interest of the event's long term viability to cancel for 2021 and look forward to a brighter 2022 event.
"Due to this cancellation, your registration will be fully refunded by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and Bridge Day. The Holiday Lodge is fully aware of this cancellation and will also be giving refunds. Please contact your lodging facility and make the necessary cancellations on your end at your earliest convenience."
Benjy Simpson Jr. and Benjy Simpson III, who supervise rappelling and the highline for the event, as well as overseeing Bridge Walk guided tours, said a decision on their end will be made before the Sept. 29 Bridge Day Commission meeting. Like others, their concerns have included the availability of hospital beds or related medical care if injuries were to occur to Bridge Day participants or the general public which would require possibly limited services on the day of the event.
"No, we will not cancel today; we will make a decision by next week," said the elder Simpson. "Everybody will get all of their money back, ... if we choose to cancel."
Earlier, he had pointed out his two main concerns: "One, we're going to screw it up and, two, the other is that we're going to become the Sturgis of West Virginia," referring to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2021 held last month in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Last week, the commission voted 4-2 against a motion to cancel the event. At the end of Wednesday's meeting, BDC member Terry Ritterbush made a motion to vote again at next week's meeting on how to move forward with the event. The motion passed, with BDC member Allison Taylor voting against.
"I don't think we need to keep re-assessing this; we have no new data," Taylor said. "Without new data, I think we need to amend our by-laws, and we have to have a compelling change of circumstance before we revisit every decision we make.
"It's just not productive."
Earlier in the meeting, Taylor said she didn't realize a "sub-group of the commission," such as the BASE jumpers, could make a unilateral decision without involving the BDC.
"Also, I feel like nothing has changed in the last several weeks," Taylor said later. "We've been on Delta red for over a month now. We've had the hospital staffing issues for over a year now.
"I want to know what changed, other than the panic level and the political pressure. I want to know what changed."
"We had sort of bided our time to not have to make a tough decision like this," said Kissner. "We were sort of looking for the event to make that decision, to keep us from making the hard decision."
"We don't organize this event, we certainly don't do it for money, we do it for fun," he added. Assuming the responsibility, "just to have a good day out jumping" is not worth the risk, he noted.
"It really isn't your all's responsibility, it's the community's responsibility, and the circumstances haven't changed," Taylor responded.
Sharon Cruikshank, mayor of Fayetteville and former longtime chair of the Bridge Day Commission, explained that a decision on the BASE jumpers relies totally on the BASE organizers.
"The BASE jumpers are the only ones qualified to make a decision for the BASE jumpers to jump. Mark Kissner and Marcus Ellison are two of the top BASE jumpers in the country," she said, and Kissner agreed.
"Ultimately, we're the ones that have to organize the jumpers (pulling people and resources together)," Kissner said. "We're really the people that they (Fayette County Chamber of Commerce) look to to make sure this is going to run the way it needs to run."
"There's always another year, the bridge isn't going anywhere," he said. "We'd rather wait until we can have the event the way it needs to be held."
Becky Sullivan, chair of the Bridge Day Commission and executive director of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and the New River Gorge CVB, praised the BASE jump organizers for their decision.
"It's a very important decision being made for the betterment of the community," Sullivan said. "It's a big (financial) hit, but it is definitely the right move."
Teri Harlan, administrator of the Fayette County Health Department, who last week said it would be "incredibly irresponsible" to move ahead with the event, also applauded the move by the BASE organizers.
"This is one of the most unselfish things I have ever seen anyone do," she said. "I have nothing against Bridge Day. I want to get back to normal life, (but) I'm super proud of these BASE jumpers."
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Steve Keenan added to this report.