Downtown events will proceed as planned, but not without some hand-wringing

Several upcoming events could bring thousands of people into Downtown Harrisonburg. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Underscoring how covid-19 continues to complicate even routine approvals of event permits, Harrisonburg city council members engaged in a back-and-forth over whether to regulate upcoming outdoor events — and if so how. 

Ultimately, the council approved three special event requests for upcoming weekends, but not before council members debated their responsibilities as city leaders to guard against a potential outbreak at Block Party in the Burg, slated for Saturday, Aug. 28.

Several council members — Chris Jones, Laura Dent and Mayor Deanna Reed — said they would be uncomfortable imposing a mask mandate at the outdoor event downtown. Gov. Ralph Northam and the Centers for Disease Control aren’t recommending people wear masks at outdoor gatherings. Still, they discussed the possibility of covid cases rising with more students returning to town and the more contagious Delta variant driving up cases nationally. 

At one point, just before the vote Reed suggested perhaps the most prudent move would be to call off the Block Party.  

“If we really feel like having 4,000 people downtown is really gonna cause some discomfort, I don’t think we should do it,” Reed said.

But Reed backed off from that position and council members quickly voted to approve the permit and ones for the following weekend’s Best Weekend Ever event and EMU’s Homecoming Celebration on Oct. 16.

The bottom line, on which all five council members agreed, was: vaccinations are the most effective option for stopping the spread.

“That’s what’s going to be what helps and saves people, because the majority of people that are struggling with this are unvaccinated,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. 

She said Harrisonburg’s vaccination rate is “pretty good” at 65%, compared to the state’s 70%. James Madison University recently announced that the vaccination rate among their students sits at 81%, with Eastern Mennonite University’s at around 90%.

“So when you look at that, and you’re outside, and if you feel uncomfortable, you should wear a mask,” Reed said.

Dent noted that a key goal of the block party is to introduce college students to downtown Harrisonburg, and if there’s a feasible way to get the message out that the city takes the covid protocols seriously “this might be a good population to promote that to.”

Council member Chris Jones said it’s important they consider the effect of thousands of students returning to the community. 

“We want them to go into restaurants, but I’m hoping that the businesses are prepared for what that looks like,” Jones said. “When you said the 81 percent, I think about the 19. When you talk about our 65, I think about the other 35. Because people that are vaccinated are still picking up the Delta variant, not in huge numbers, but it happens.”

Reed said restaurants reopened their dining rooms months ago, and with other outdoor events such as football games and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance’s “Best Weekend Ever” returning, they can’t start “picking and choosing.”

“At some point people have to take responsibility for themselves and others,” Reed said.

Council member George Hirschmann advised people to carry a mask in one’s pocket, and to wear it if at all uncomfortable.

Council member Laura Dent proposed putting up signs on the day of the block party encouraging people to follow CDC guidelines — such as getting vaccinated or wearing a mask and social distancing if they’re not vaccinated — “to mitigate any potential for spread and just to get the message out there for people to be responsible.”

But Reed said, “if people don’t know what to do by now, they just don’t want to do it.”

Recreation and Special Events Manager Matt Little said he would relay that to Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, which works with businesses on many of the downtown events, and get it ready before the next four days.”

Revised proposal for early vote drop-off boxes

Charles Conner, chairman of JMU’s student government legislative affairs committee, returned to the council to outline a revised proposal between the Student Government Association and College Democrats and Republican groups. The proposal is aimed at encouraging early voting on campus to allow for absentee ballot boxes to be placed in high traffic areas.

Vice president of JMU College Democrats Leia Surovell spoke on behalf of those student groups to emphasize the importance of early student voting. She said the majority of JMU students voted early in 2020, “so we know that students are most comfortable with early voting.”

“There is a high potential for JMU students to turn out, because they register to vote at very high numbers, around 80%,” Surovell said. “However, JMU students turn out to vote at about 30 percentage points lower than registration, even at presidential elections, when turnout is at its highest.”

She said increased access to early voting on campus would “facilitate student participation in this November’s elections and help to build a pattern of lifelong voting and civic engagement, which is consistent with the city’s mission.”

The boxes, according to the proposal, would be open from Oct. 18-20, 27 and 28 between 12-3 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.

The council didn’t take action on the proposal Tuesday.

Repealing old ordinances 

Council repealed two outdated ordinances related to the Farmer’s Market and bike registration. One ordinance section referred to the old produce market at the downtown parking deck, giving the Chief of Police complete authority over the market, and also limited sales to just those of farm products grown or produced by the seller.

“So if that were to be enforced now, there would be some gaps in our Farmer’s Market,” Brown said.

The other required that every bicycle sold or owned in the city be registered with the police chief, with one section requiring dealers of second-hand bikes to file paperwork with the police about sales of individual bikes. Brown said city staff would likely come back with a variation of that which would require bike shops to report serial numbers of new bikes to the police department so they could check it with their logs of stolen bikes. 

The police department is also going to create a voluntary registration system where people can give their bike serial numbers to the police, “so if it gets stolen it makes it a little easier to track down.”

Also in the meeting:

  • The council approved a memorandum allowing people to use credit cards to pay for water bills, parking tickets, and tax bills over the counter, with a convenience fee attached to the charge. 
  • The council reallocated outstanding funds from both the Community Development Block Grant and the city budget into fiscal year 2021-2022.

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