OAK HILL — Bridge Day has been canceled for just the second time in its history.
Citing ongoing concerns with the Covid-19 pandemic and ability to safely stage the event, the Bridge Day Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday to cancel the planned 2020 installment of West Virginia's largest one-day festival, which would have been held on Oct. 17.
The general consensus for the decision was "the uncertainties of having mass gatherings and the care and concern for the community's safety," said Becky Sullivan, executive director of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce/New River Gorge CVB and chair of the Bridge Day Commission. "We can't have a mass gathering in the Bridge Day capacity and enforce social distancing as it needs to be."
The commission had originally planned to meet on July 15 to address the future of this year's festival, but instead held a virtual emergency meeting on Wednesday to make a decision. "I've received numerous calls and concerns, had discussions with our state leaders, discussions with our community leaders, and it was unanimous (to cancel)," she said. "We've been watching everything unfold around us (during the pandemic)."
Commission members wanted to see how activities such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July weekend went at home and elsewhere, and a previous announcement that the West Virginia State Fair was canceled also gave them pause. "We kind of figured we were just prolonging the inevitable."
At least two events that surround Bridge Day, the Taste of Bridge Day and a chili cookoff in downtown Fayetteville, will be canceled, as well, Sullivan noted.
Tabitha Stover, executive director of the Fayetteville CVB, confirmed the cancellation of the chili cookoff normally held on Bridge Day Saturday. Individuals who had already paid will receive a refund, she said.
"It's an extreme disappointment," Sullivan said of the Bridge Day cancellation. "It didn't actually really hit me until maybe about a month or two ago that coronavirus was not going to be gone by October and that it was a possibility that we were going to have to cancel. We are disappointed to cancel; this is not an event that we want to cancel. We understand this is the region's signature event.
"It celebrates the bridge, it celebrates adventure, it celebrates whitewater rafting, the Park Service. We didn't want to make this decision, and it was not made lightly.
"In the end, it came down to the best decision overall for everybody was to cancel 2020 and move forward with making 2021 Bridge Day better than ever."
This year's festival would have been the 41st.
"The uncertainty we are facing makes the probability of factors outside of our control forcing us to cancel the event at the last minute much higher," Sullivan said in a press release. "We based this decision on the facts as we know them and, more importantly, based on our responsibility and care for our community.”
Alternative options were considered, Sullivan said. "We have tried to come up with other ways and ideas of things we could do, but nothing has really panned out for it to be as successful for what we need it to be to keep the Bridge Day quality."
Only one other time in its history was Bridge Day canceled. After the terrorist attacks that rocked the United States in September 2001, the event was shelved for safety reasons. In its place that year, The Spirit of Bridge Day was staged in downtown Fayetteville. That event featured the first Mountain State Slalom and Skateboard Competition, and it also gave rise to an activity that has proven to be very popular in subsequent Bridge Days — the Taste of Bridge Day.
The New River Gorge Bridge was dedicated and officially opened to traffic on Oct. 22, 1977. According to a timeline from www.officialbridgeday.com, the first New River Gorge Bridge Day was conducted on Nov. 8, 1980. Two parachutists jumped from a plane onto the bridge, and five parachutists jumped from the bridge into the gorge. More than 5,000 certificates were handed out to individuals who walked on the bridge that day.
On the third Saturday in October each year, thousands of spectators can legally walk across the bridge and watch as BASE jumpers get their chance to fly 876 feet into the New River Gorge below and rappellers ascend and descend from the catwalk.
Over the years, the event has flourished, adding various activities and attracting thousands annually to Fayette County to watch the BASE jumpers and rappellers, soak in the fall colors, and make purchases from a wide variety of vendors.
The economic impact on the area is going to be "hurtful," Sullivan admitted.
The West Virginia Legislature established the New River Gorge Bridge Day Commission to sanction, coordinate and promulgate rules and regulations for the annual event, according to the press release. The commission is composed of representatives from the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, Fayette County Commission, State Police, Town of Fayetteville and WV Division of Highways. In recent years, the Bridge Day Commission has added advisory positions from the National Park Service, the BASE, rappel and vendor communities.
Large event planners "are in uncharted territory," Sullivan said in the release, "and we are working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation. We are committed to doing our part to protect our communities, staff, volunteers, attendees and fellow Mountaineers.
“We continue to strive toward our purpose of celebrating the New River Gorge Bridge and surrounding areas. We intend to keep morale high and, together with community leaders, focus on collective efforts to rebuild a fantastic event in 2021."
A total of 45 BASE jumpers had already registered for the 2020 event since registration opened July 1, and a similar number of vendors had already committed. Also, 105 individuals had signed up for the Into The Gorge shuttles.
Anyone who has already committed funds in the form of sponsorship, BASE registration, purchase of Into The Gorge shuttle spots, media or vendor registration will have the option of a refund, to roll over their commitment to 2021 with no fee increase (if one occurs), or donate to the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, Sullivan said.
Additional updates will be made on officialbridgeday.com.
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