One of the most popular holiday events in Zephyrhills won’t be happening this year after all — because of the ongoing concern about the coronavirus pandemic.
City leaders pulled the plug on the Festival of Lights Christmas Parade, typically held each year and hosted in partnership with Main Street Zephyrhills Inc., and the Zephyrhills Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).
The downtown event had been scheduled for Dec. 5. Typically, the celebration draws more than 15,000 people.
Because of the parade’s popularity, the Zephyrhills City Council and other city officials felt it was prudent to cancel the event in the interest of health and safety. The issue was discussed at length during a Nov. 9 regular meeting.
As an alternative to the holiday festival, Main Street Zephyrhills and Zephyrhills CRA are organizing a smaller downtown gathering on Dec. 5 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the town square on Fifth Avenue.
Activities will include a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, pictures with Santa, food trucks and a family movie.
Meanwhile, scrapping the full-blown parade is on par with other local municipalities that also have canceled similarly sized Christmas-themed events. Dade City has canceled its Christmas festival, as has Lakeland and Plant City, respectively
Because of those cancellations, city leaders voiced concerns that an influx of residents from other communities would flock to Zephyrhills to check out its Christmas parade, if it had one.
Officials also said it would be difficult to create controlled entrance points, check temperatures and make sure everyone followed mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines.
Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe underscored the impact if someone (or multiple people) with COVID-19 showed up to a full-scale Christmas festival.
“It just takes one and it’s a mess for us,” Poe said at the meeting. “(It’d be) a news media frenzy on Zephyrhills on, ‘How did you have this large event that you weren’t able to control?’”
Poe went on to explain there’s a difference between a city sponsoring such an event and a private organization or location — such as Busch Gardens, Disney, the Grove at Wesley Chapel.
Those groups, Poe said, “have very controlled entrance points” to maintain order and safety protocols.
The increasing positivity rates in local schools is another concern, the city manager said, noting, “I know that a couple of us have had kids impacted multiple times this year already.”
While concurring with Poe’s comments relating to public safety, Council President Charles Proctor said it’s a shame the event has to be canceled.
“I’ve lived in this city for over 30 years and I’ve never missed a Christmas Parade, so it breaks my heart that because of all this, we have to do what we have to do, unfortunately,” Proctor said.
“The last thing I want is for us to have an event and somebody get sick, and then the city is thrown under the bus for not being responsible. It’s hard to make decisions like this and shut down, but our hands are tied with the guidelines. I mean, we have to do what we have to do to keep our citizens safe.”
Published November 25, 2020