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Fireworks, float tonight will test people’s COVID conduct

Fireworks burst over the Ice Palace in February 2020 to conclude that year's 10-day Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — The Winter Carnival opening fireworks show is at 7 p.m. tonight, and though the state has a 50-person limit on events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local health officials have approved of a “park-and-view” plan for people to watch the show from their cars, socially distance and wear masks.

Before the fireworks begin, the Winter Carnival Court members will travel on a float from the Elks Lodge, down Church Street to the Ice Palace on River Street.

The plan relies heavily on attendees’ compliance with the safety rules, as it will be difficult to enforce them.

This event is an experiment, the first of its kind in the village since last Winter Carnival, which was held mere weeks before the spread of the coronavirus canceled nearly all events in the past 11 months. The outcome will determine if a second fireworks display scheduled for next Saturday, Feb. 13, can be held, accoring to village Manager John Sweeney.

The Winter Carnival schedule has been drastically pared down from its usual form, and the traditions that are still on — the Ice Palace, royalty float, and fireworks — have been pared down as well.

Seen from an aerial drone, construction volunteers work to finish the Ice Palace Thursday in time for the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival to begin. (Provided photo — Christopher Lenney, Watertown Daily Times)

Carnival organizers are also asking people to not travel to Saranac Lake. They say this is a Carnival for the locals, much like it used to be in the days before it attracted tens of thousands of tourists, according to Winter Carnival Committee Chairman Jeff Branch.

“I don’t want people coming from Lake George,” Branch said. “This is strictly a local Carnival. This is all we’re doing. This is for us. This is for Saranac Lake and the surrounding communities.”

Many layers of government have been notified of the plans for the event — the North Country Regional Control Room, Franklin and Essex county public health employees and legislators, and village officials — but the ultimate decision on if the plans are safe and acceptable came down to Saranac Lake Public Health Officer Ray Scollin. Other agencies said they wanted to see the plans but mostly stepped out of the way.

The plan

The 2021 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace is topped with flags Thursday afternoon after construction was completed earlier in the day. There is a U.S. flag in the middle, a Canadian flag on one end and a Winter Carnival flag on the other. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

The village obtained a permit from the state Department of Transportation to close River Street from Main Street to Lake Flower Avenue.

“We’re turning (River Street) into a parking lot,” Branch said.

He is asking people to stay in their cars, as they do not count toward that 50-person gathering limit. The DOT permit lists the expected number of participants to be 100-plus, so that is what organizers are planning for.

Scollin said he reviewed the safety plans with Branch on Wednesday night and made changes to bring it up to state guidelines.

Some of the additions to the plan Scollin listed was including a contact tracing log, arranging security for the crowd and a rule against sharing food or beverages.

“What we came away with I’m very satisfied with,” Scollin said. “I think it meets the New York Forward safety guidelines.”

Scollin said the village operates under both state Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and he believes Carnival organizers have done a good job with the “balancing act” of holding an event and keeping it safe. He shared the plans with Franklin County Public Health Director Kathleen Strack and said she did not have any questions.

Scollin said he is not naive and knows people will walk over to watch the fireworks or exit their cars to get a better view of the fireworks.

“Will people get out? Probably,” Branch said. “But we’re doing our due diligence. That’s all we can do.”

He said volunteers will ask people to avoid congregating and ask for them to abide by mask-wearing mandates.

Asked if he was concerned about spread of the virus at the event, Scollin said a spread is possible but that concern about spread is everywhere in everyday life now. He said walking down the street or going into the post office brings a risk.

“In risk management we can’t stop risk; we can only mitigate it,” Scollin said. “I’m confident that we have a solid plan, and I think we’ve mitigated the risk significantly with these modifications.”

Float

Village Manager Sweeney said the royalty float will transport the Court — high school seniors — to the Ice Palace before the fireworks.

“I don’t view that as a parade,” Sweeney said.

Franklin County Legislator and Saranac Laker Lindy Ellis felt the same way.

“I think it’s transportation,” she said. “I am comfortable with what they are proposing.”

Initially, a mini-parade was planned for the royalty float, with students from St. Bernard’s School carrying a banner thanking essential workers and “pop-up” performances from local parade staples like the Lawn Chair Ladies, Canoodlers and the Bucket Ruckus drummers.

Scollin said Branch cut these plans after talking with public health officials.

Branch said within the Ice Palace location there will be no more than 50 people.

The Court and possibly the king and queen, depending on room, will be on the float. Branch said other royalty — arch bishop, chamberlain, prince and princess — will not.

Branch feels the float is important, especially for the high school seniors who have had a tough year dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. His younger son is a senior, though not a Court member.

“My own kids don’t feel like they belong to a school anymore. Very sad,” Branch said. “I’ve never heard anyone discuss how much is being taken away from these kids. It’s all about other things.”

He said giving the kids a traditional Carnival experience and a bit of recognition is the reason he did all this planning.

Enforcement

The safety of the event relies primarily on the attending public complying with the organizers’ request for social distancing, mask-wearing and staying in cars. If people do not do these things, there is not a whole lot stopping them, but they will jeopardize others’ health and future events.

Branch was asked how organizers will distinguish the 6-foot marking for different groups. He said he does not plan to, because if they put out ice blocks at 6-foot intervals, that could be seen as a signal it is OK to get out of the car.

If someone does get out, Branch said they will be asked to get back in, and that he hopes people are smart about it.

“We’re going to gently remind them, ‘Please get in your car,'” Branch said. “If they don’t, there’s not much we can do.

“We’re not going to have confrontations with anybody. If anybody gets a problem, all my people are directed to find the nearest police officer, and they’re going to deal with them.”

Village police Chief James Joyce said he does not foresee ticketing people for non-compliance, hoping that people will follow the rules without needing to be told.

Joyce said he will use his whole staff — 12 officers, including himself — as well as one part-time officer.

Branch said that if people leave their vehicles, they had better be back by the end of the show. Joyce said he will have a towing company on standby to remove any unattended vehicles in the street after the show.

“If they’re not in their car when the fireworks are over, their cars will get towed,” Branch said. “If you get your car towed, I don’t want to hear it.”

Joyce was asked about attendees leaving the fireworks to go to bars and restaurants afterward.

“Sure, it makes me nervous,” Joyce said. But he said Saranac Lake businesses have “by and large” followed the restrictions without incident.

Currently bars and restaurants are capped at 50% capacity.

Complaints

Branch said at least one member of the Winter Carnival Committee filed a complaint to the village and Regional Control Room citing concern about the event plans and potential spread of the virus. However, some of their information — including the date and current extent of the float procession — was incorrect.

Branch called this person a “fool” and said their complaint was a “hatchet job,” adding that he believes they are “not part of this community.”

“Whoever is leaking from my committee, they’re wrong, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves, and they should resign,” Branch said.

He said committee members were given chance to step back earlier in the year, and that some stayed and “stirred things up.”

Scollin said he received a complaint about the plans.

Franklin County Legislature Chairman Donald Dabiew said he got three complaints about the event through the New York on Pause website. When he receives a complaint, he passes it on to the respective legislator — in this case, Ellis — the County Public Health department and law enforcement. He said they then hand it to the village or town.

Essex County Senior Public Health Educator Andrea Whitmarsh, speaking for herself and Public Health Director Linda Beers, said on Wednesday she had not seen any Winter Carnival plans and wanted to learn more about the plans before saying whether the department approved.

She said the safety plans organizers create are to be kept on hand so the county can ask for them if it desires.

How the fireworks will go down

The music and presentation for the fireworks will be broadcast on 104.9 FM radio, Branch said. The show begins at 7 p.m.

There will be two rows of vehicle parking along the road, with a gap between Shepard Avenue and Willy-nilly Gardening. One lane will be left open for emergency vehicles.

Cars coming from Lake Flower Avenue will take a detour down Brandy Brook Avenue. Cars coming from the George LaPan Highway will take a detour down Main Street. There will also be a closure at the intersection of Church and River streets. These three intersections will have police present. There will also be closures at the intersections of Helen and Pine streets, Pine Street and Brandy Brook Avenue, and Bloomingdale Avenue and Church Street.

These roads will close at 6:15 p.m., under an hour before the fireworks begin.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation approved a temporary revocable permit restricting parking at the state’s Lake Flower boat launch parking lot throughout Carnival, to keep people from gathering at the Ice Palace.

Initially Tupper Lake village Mayor and Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun was not happy with the plans, when told about the potential mini-parade on Wednesday. He said he would not allow that in Tupper Lake, referencing the two recent deaths in Franklin County and saying he felt allowing the pop-up performances was unfair to other towns which have cancelled such events.

He said he liked the fireworks and float idea.

On the Fourth of July Tupper Lake held a fireworks show with similar in-car viewing rules and he said that worked well.

When he heard about the final plans he felt the event was safe and responsible.

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