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A SEA OF PEOPLE — Sorrells Street Park in Canton was packed for the 2019 Labor Day events. The celebration traditionally draws huge crowds, and is known as the long-running event in the Southeast.

While there might be a Labor Day celebration of some sort in Canton this year, it will be unlike any other in the event’s 114-year history.

Canton’s Labor Day event is known for and marketed as the longest-running festival in the southeast.

This year, however, concerns about crowd limitations imposed in the days of a global pandemic, prompted town leaders to cancel the large events that people have come to expect with the multi-day event.

That means no concerts, no food trucks, no children’s events and no large gatherings in the green spaces or theaters in town.

Town Manager Jason Burrell said the town had contracts with various bands, including Diamond Rio, which was to headline this year’s celebration, and he needed to know how the board stood on still going through with plans given the coronavirus uncertainty.

“Administration recommends canceling,” said Burrell. “We can continue to formulate plans for the potential of a parade, if that will be allowed, and perhaps a lower-scale event. But it is our recommendation we cancel events at Sorrels Street Park.”

Alderman Ralph Hamlett said there was no way to safely have even a scaled-down event.

“A parade is out,” he said forcefully. “We need to cancel the entire event because we’re not even in a second wave of this, but are seeing spikes across the nation. I don’t think North Carolina will be spared. If we do anything, I can see us adding unintentionally to the problem.”

Burrell said the staff recommendation was for the festival events only.

“The rest is a moving target, and we can talk about that whenever we want,” he said. “We’re talking now about the financial burden of the festival.”

Hamlett made a motion to cancel two-day festival, with Alderwoman Gail Mull seconding. The motion passed unanimously, though not without board members lamenting the need for the action.

Krista Smith said canceling the festival is just one more heartbreaking development in the days of COVID-19.

“There have been lots of misses, including graduation, birthdays, and this is one other,” she said. “It breaks my heart because I love Labor Day, but this is the best call for town at this moment.”

Alderman Tim Sheperd agreed, as did Mayor Zeb Smathers.

“With $120,000 on the line, if we risk that amount of money and the safety of our citizens in hopes to have Labor Day as have in last two years, I can’t square those things up,” he said.

Burrell said it is hard to predict where the situation will be come September, and Hamlett said the decision was not about the money, but safety.

Smathers said he would personally like to leave the door open to consider other options to celebrate Labor Day in town.

“Labor Day is part of our DNA. It shows the rest of the region that, even in these difficult times, we can still find some way to say this is important to us,” Smathers said. “Who knows, it could be a YouTube video. I’m an eternally optimistic person. I don’t feel comfortable throwing in the towel on that for now. Hopefully we can do something to carry on the tradition.

Hamlett said he was open to doing online activities or perhaps hanging a banner talking about support for workers, but nothing more than that.

Burrell said the only decision that was needed immediately was to cancel contractual obligations. The rest, he said, could be discussed at a later date.

Hamlett said planning for any type of a congregate event would be a mistake. He said he drove by the swimming pool on the way to the meeting and noticed kids lined up for the slide without being socially distanced at all.

“I know we’re trying to maintain social distancing, but it just doesn’t happen,” he said. “We’ve got to assume responsibility for our fellow persons. Yeah, it hurts. We’ve got a tradition and mourn loss of that tradition, but people are working together to overcome hard times. And this is a hard time. To sacrifice for one year so next year will be better, we can say we’ve got through this by not taking unnecessary risks.”

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