FAYETTEVILLE — Despite pleas from several speakers detailing public health safety concerns, the Bridge Day Commission opted Wednesday to move forward with planning for Bridge Day on Oct. 16.
After discussion, the commission decided to continue planning the popular festival, during which U.S. Rte. 19 is closed in the vicinity of the New River Gorge Bridge and members of the public are allowed to legally walk across the two north-bound lanes of the span from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the third Saturday in October.
Commission member Mike Fridley, the Fayette County sheriff and a voting member of the BDC, motioned to cancel the event, and Becky Sullivan, the Bridge Day Commission chair who is the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce representative on the commission, seconded Fridley's motion. The motion was defeated 4-2, with commission representatives from the W.Va. Division of Highways, the State Police, the Town of Fayetteville and the Fayette County Commission casting votes against Fridley's motion to cancel. Fridley and Sullivan voted in support of the motion.
During his media briefing on Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice urged the commission to move forward with the event. The governor said he had talked with Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby on Friday to explore how state agencies should handle Bridge Day this year.
"There was even a possibility of not having Bridge Day," he said in Wednesday's briefing. "I said, 'No way. No way.' All we can do is encourage. I mean, it's their event, but from the standpoint of the government, I absolutely, I think wholeheartedly we should go forward with Bridge Day.
"You know, we're having football games and everything, you know, where we have big gatherings, so why in the world should we not have Bridge Day? It's a celebration that a lot of people have come to and enjoyed and it puts a spotlight on our state again. It makes a lot of good things happen in an area of our state that desperately needs help and it's an event that just again showcases West Virginia, so our DOT and our State Police and Tourism Department are ready to handle this event and they'll do what they need to do to support if the board chooses to move ahead with it and have it.
"I have not shut down the large events, nor am I going to — and, at least, I guess you never say never on anything and we want to be nimble enough to move and adjust and everything. We've said it over and over. There is no playbook here. There's no playbook at all. But right now, from my standpoint, I have no intentions whatsoever of shutting down these large events, so I hope they choose to have Bridge Day."
Some speakers at Wednesday's BDC meeting discussed their concerns with a current Covid-19 case surge that has greatly diminished hospital capacity in the state, as well as how hosting a large event such as Bridge Day could further tax health care workers, hospitals, first responders, law enforcement personnel and the community as a whole.
Health care worker Lacy Burdette addressed the commission via Zoom before the vote. She said hospital staffs are "stretched thin," in addition to capacities for accepting patients being highly curtailed. "When you're talking about bringing 100,000 or whatever the amount of people is to our small town, there really needs to be a conversation about risk management," she said.
Whether a Bridge Day participant is injured or has a health issue, or local citizens require a hospital visit during that time, she asked, "What is the plan for where these people are going to go, and how we're going to make sure we keep our community safe?"
She said she and co-workers "don't think that it is a great idea" to hold Bridge Day this year.
When Burdette finished speaking, Sullivan told her the hard work of hospital staff is appreciated. "Well, show it," Burdette shot back.
Teri Harlan, administrator of the Fayette County Health Department, was another expressing concerns with staging the event. She called it "incredibly irresponsible as a community for us to move forward (with Bridge Day)." After the vote, Harlan told commissioners, "Since you voted it's your obligation to ... figure out (what to do with the people from the event who need health care services that may not be available)."
"Unless Charleston has some magic group of nurses and doctors hidden somewhere that they can send here ...," she added. "That's what we need to be doing, asking Charleston.
"They need to step up and help us figure this out."
With Bridge Day fast approaching, the commission will meet weekly in the remaining lead-up to Bridge Day, beginning with a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 22. Sullivan said the BDC won't re-visit the decision to stage the event unless a commission member asks for it to be placed on the agenda again, or if mandates from the state or federal level require a shift in direction.
Others during the discussion said a yay-or-nay decision is needed sooner rather than later due to extensive planning under way for individuals and groups from outside the area who aim to come to West Virginia for the event.
Marcus Ellison, who supervises the BASE jumpers' portion of Bridge Day, asked why Bridge Day is being singled out while tourists are currently visiting Fayette County and southern West Virginia to partake in a variety of outdoor activities.
"I don't disagree or want to negate" the efforts of medical professionals and others, Ellison said. "I agree that this is a risk.
"What I question is why the only finger is being pointed at Bridge Day, when there has been a slow trickle of thousands of people coming to our town via the commercial whitewater industry, the rock climbing community, mountain biking, this and that..."
Ellison said a week-by-week analysis of hold-or-fold is "foolish." "Logistical plans are already well in motion," he said. "If there's going to be some decision about it, make up your mind."
Benjy Simpson III, who works with the rappellers and highline participants during Bridge Day, said, "I would like to know (enough in advance) before Bridge Day how many open (hospital) beds we have." That answer could sway a decision to move forward with the rappel, he said.
Terry Ritterbush, who serves as the representative for the Town of Fayetteville on the BDC, said his vote was cast to convey the town's position, and "their position was to move forward."
Ahead of the vote, Fridley expressed reservations of, among other areas, keeping his county's citizens "safe and secure." He also said a mask mandate issued by the BDC is not enforceable.
Sullivan said she voted as she did because board members of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce were polled and "overwhelmingly decided it would be best to cancel the event."
Bryan Parsons, the director of transportation for Fayette County Schools, voiced concerns from the transportation end. FCS bus drivers help transport Bridge Day participants on that day, and Parsons said the school system is currently having "crisis" issues of its own keeping bus operators available for school runs. "Very, very few drivers are actually wanting to participate," Parsons said. The call has been put out for 31 drivers to work the event, and only nine had signed up as of Wednesday morning. "Right now, I'm very concerned there could be a lack of transportation," he said.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Chief Ranger Duane Michael, who serves the commission in an advisory role for the National Park Service, said there are caveats in the Bridge Day permit, including one for Covid, that could cause the permit to be pulled if it is deemed the event would be too unsafe. "The fact of the matter remains that, if guidance were to change from the Washington level, we would have to accommodate based on that."
Kevin Walker, the director of the Fayette County Office of Emergency Management, said, "I do have great concerns of moving forward with this event" as it relates to health and safety throughout the county. Walker said work must begin very shortly to begin the process of assessing and requesting extra resources that will be needed from the state, and costs must be assessed.
In the days leading up to the vote, Gabriel Peña — writing as a private citizen and a Fayetteville Town Council member — posted on Facebook regarding Bridge Day 2021: "If the past few years are any indication, October 16 will be beautiful. Given pandemic weariness plus the redesignation of the New River Gorge Park and Preserve, it is reasonable to expect that Bridge Day 2021 will draw close to 100,000 people.
"This kind of crowd packed onto the short stretch of U.S. Route 19 will make social distancing impossible. And while masks will be required within event perimeters, on buses and at vendor galleries, that requirement will be essentially unenforceable."
Peña went on to discuss the potential of thousands of unvaccinated people who "will potentially be in and around our community interacting with service industry workers, first responders, law enforcement officers and other essential workers."
He suggested sitting it out again this year (Bridge Day 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic) to protect the larger community and prevent a further over-run of area hospitals. "We can celebrate the New River Gorge and its bridge next year or at a time when we are less vulnerable to community transmission," Peña said.
On Sept. 2, the Bridge Day Commission released a Covid-19 health and safety statement concerning the operation of Bridge Day. The statement read in part, "All attendees, staff, vendors and community — regardless of vaccination status — are to wear a mask or social distance when in the event perimeters. Social distancing will only be permitted in those areas that are not crowded or congested.
"Based on past Bridge Day attendance, a mask will be required on the bridge, on the buses, in the vendor galley, and at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. Due to crowd sizes, social distancing will not be an option in these locations. This includes vendors interacting with customers and while preparing any food and beverage products."
Masks will be available at the gate entrances for those who don't have them. Attendees can remove masks while eating or drinking, but organizers still urge groups to put space between themselves and others.
Some Bridge Day activities will be exempt from the mask mandate. That will include activities in which wearing a mask could cause a safety concern, such as BASE jumping, running in the 5K race, sliding on the highline, whitewater rafting and rappelling. The exemption will exist during those specific activities, but masking up before and after their participation will be necessary.
Vaccinations are not required, but are strongly encouraged. For more on the health and safety statement, visit www.officialbridgeday.com.
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(Cheryl Keenan contributed reporting).