The lights will still go on, but the prospects for the Light Up Ocala event being held this year dimmed Tuesday night when the City Council expressed concern about the specter of inviting tens of thousands of people to pack the downtown square in the midst of a pandemic.
The council had asked its staff to come up with criteria for holding the massive holiday gathering and present it before Oct. 20, when the council will make a final decision on whether to hold the event, which last year drew between 20,000 and 30,000 people, according to city estimates.
Ken Whitehead, assistant city manager for Public Works, told council members they had examined Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Phase 3 guidelines, as well as Florida Department of Health recommendations, in order to conform to mitigation practices.
“While there appears to be criteria for how well mitigation efforts are working, there is no established and accepted criteria for determining when the threat has sufficiently subsided,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead said two criteria stood out:
- The governor’s guidelines “include minimizing time spent in crowded environments as well as social distancing protocol”
- Health Department recommendations call for such events to implement mitigation practices, especially social distancing and wearing masks.
“Given the criteria, I don’t see how you could conduct the event on Nov.21st (Light Up’s scheduled date),” council President Jay Musleh said. “People will refer to it as a ‘superspreader event.’ I don’t think any of us want to be on record of supporting that.”
One city leader, though, pushed back at the idea of cancelling Light Up Ocala. Mayor Kent Guinn said the decision of whether to attend the event should be left to the people.
“Well, this is a council decision, but I would say that people should have a choice,” Guinn said. “Like the governor said, you know, the Constitution did not get set aside during this pandemic, and people still have the right to assemble under the First Amendment. So, I would give them that choice – if they want to come, come, if they don’t want to come, don’t come.”
Musleh shot back, “There’s a difference between the right to assemble and a city-sanctioned event we basically put on. From what I gather, we’d probably have to have volunteer workers because I don’t know if we could, or would, want to require our city staff to be present at such an event.”
Councilman Ire Bethea, a career city employee before retiring, agreed that city workers – including parks, police and code enforcement staffs — should be a big consideration in the council’s decision.
“And we’re talking about 25,000 people,” he added.
Added Councilman Brent Malever: “We cannot take a chance.”
When asked, Whitehead said many of the vendors and performers who traditionally appear at Light Up Ocala have notified the city that they will not be participating this year.
If the event is cancelled, Whitehead said the city will still put up its traditional downtown Christmas light display and also would hold a number of smaller, more appropriate holiday events during the holiday season.
Some council members thought having smaller events spread over the holiday season might be good for downtown businesses, rather than one big event where the size of the crowd makes it difficult in some cases to get in and out of businesses.
The council voted 5-0 to accept Whitehead’s recommended criteria and will make a final decision at its Oct. 20 meeting.