The Town of Ocean City New Year’s Eve fireworks are back on as scheduled, according to an update posted on the tourism website Wednesday afternoon. The fireworks were initially canceled on December 18th along with the rest of the New Year’s celebrations.
“2020 goes out with a bang in Ocean City. While the Town of Ocean City’s New Year’s Eve celebration has been officially canceled, the town will nevertheless ring in 2021 with fireworks at midnight at Northside Park,” the statement reads. “Northside Park will be closed promptly at 9:30 p.m., and gatherings of any size will not be permitted. People living in surrounding areas will be able to see the fireworks as Ocean City says goodbye to 2020 and welcomes a hopeful and happy new year ahead.”
Originally, midnight fireworks at Northside Park on 125th Street were set to launch in conjunction with live music and an opportunity to walk through the Winterfest of Lights. The holiday displays close each night at 9:30, but resort officials planned to keep Winterfest open past midnight on New Year’s Eve. Masks are now required for those ages five and above at Winterfest, whereas before, they were only mandated when social distancing was not possible. Despite the extra layer of safety at Winterfest and a change in plans for fireworks, the lights will still close earlier in the evening.
Fireworks & Covid-19
When announcing the major shakeup nearly two weeks ago, officials cited concerns from the Worcester County Health Department. After all, Covid-19 surely remains a threat on the Eastern Shore. The positivity rate in Worcester stands at 13.96%, the fourth-highest in Maryland. As a result, gatherings of any size are restricted at Northside Park, and people must view the spectacles from nearby in their homes or vehicles.
Members of the Ocean City Council were able to provide input on this decision, though it is unknown who made the final call. According to Council President Matt James, health officers took issue with the possibility of people congregating. “The health department had concerns with an NYE celebration that could draw large crowds of people (2,000-3,000) to Northside Park for the show. While in previous years we have seen many spectators come to Northside Park for the show, I believe more people are able to enjoy the fireworks from their homes or condos in North Ocean City,” James explained. “The show is visible from almost anywhere in the north end of town. When we discussed options to move forward with fireworks the health officer was fine if we were not drawing a large crowd of spectators to a small area.” While the full closure of Northside Park may reassure town officials, no enforcement measures have been made public.
Worcester County Health Department
Travis Brown, Public Information Officer for the Worcester County Health Department, echoes the sentiments of Councilman James, citing the ability to view the fireworks without camping out at one central location. “We are aware of the Town of Ocean City’s decision to have fireworks. They’ve been in contact with us for guidance on how to hold the event safely. We support the decision not to allow gatherings at the park,” said Brown. “As long as people are taking precautions and staying socially distant, watching fireworks from home can be done safely.”
Aside from the ability to shut down the physical event site, another likely factor in the shift is the outpouring of negative reaction from residents and tourists. One prominent citizen, former Ocean City Council Candidate Nicholas Eastman, voiced his frustrations on Facebook. “I am very disappointed in the city for canceling the New Year’s fireworks show. I know that as city councilman I would have never voted in favor of cancelling the fireworks show,” Eastman wrote. “Clearly social distancing is possible, and fireworks don’t spread Covid. Just like they didn’t this summer.”
After learning of the updated news Wednesday, Eastman was quite excited. “This is great. They have done this a few times now, where they have gone back and forth and canceled holiday events,” Eastman reflected. “Ocean City canceled the Christmas parade, which I believe was wrong. This was a mistake a few weeks ago because social distancing is possible anywhere. I assume people can pull up their cars and watch now. In the end, this is the type of event that brings families to Ocean City. Maybe this should have been done at the inlet as well.”
Glenn Irwin, Executive Director of the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC), shares Eastman’s thoughts about an additional site downtown. “Even though the New Year’s Eve fireworks at Northside Park will not be held as its normal celebration, I’m glad that they are still shooting off the fireworks for people to view at a distance,” said Irwin. “It would’ve been nice to do the same for the downtown area on the beach too with plenty of room to social distance from each other. One fireworks event in OC is better than having none.”
Council President James also opposed the initial decision but is glad to see the change in course. “I believe the announcement that NYE Fireworks were canceled was premature, but I’m glad we were able to put a plan together that satisfies the health department and will still allow our residents, property owners, and visitors to enjoy the fireworks as we celebrate the end of 2020.”
Business Draw & Financial Aspect
Additionally, it cannot be ignored that the New Year’s Eve celebrations are certainly used by both restauranteurs and hoteliers to draw in visitors. With the need to bring in more tourists after a slower summer, anger from the business community may have played a role in the change of plans.
As many remember, this is not the first fireworks show impacted by Covid-19. In July, Independence Day fireworks were canceled over concerns of massive gatherings and postponed to New Year’s Eve. The roughly 10-15 minute, $55,000 NYE show, could have been added on to the already scheduled July 4th, 2021, 20-minute spectacle. However, officials behind the decision believed that extending the July 4th event to 35 minutes was unnecessary, and it would best suit the town to use the fireworks they already have in stock.
Financially, it was also paramount for the town to use these fireworks, because according to Acting Tourism Director and Communications Manager Jessica Waters, “there was a financial commitment that was non-refundable.” There was speculation over whether the funds could be carried over to 2021, but as Waters confirmed, the answer was no, putting increased pressure on the town to set off the fireworks. The town had the discretion to either use the fireworks now or save them for next summer, but the bottom line is that the payment to the vendor, Celebration Fireworks, is final. Nonetheless, many Ocean City tourists and residents are happy to see New Year’s Eve fireworks back on the books after a very challenging 2020.