By Randy Arrington
LURAY, June 11 — With the 4th of July falling on a Saturday and other localities in the region canceling planned events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Luray’s scheduled fireworks display could draw quite a crowd three weeks from now.
“We will have fireworks, but none of the other kid’s events that we usually have [during the day],” Luray Town Manager Steve Burke said Thursday morning during a virtual meeting of the county’s three town managers.
The Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce put together the virtual meeting to update the community on what’s happening in the county’s three towns. A recording of the one-hour meeting will be available for viewing on the Chamber’s Facebook page on Friday.
“With Harrisonburg and others in the region canceling their fireworks and events, we are anticipating a larger crowd coming to Luray,” Burke added.
The potential influx of people wanting to see fireworks on Independence Day prompted the town to work out an agreement with the Page Valley Fair to use the fairgrounds as a launch site for this year’s display.
“The fairgrounds are at a little higher elevation, so we hope everyone in town can see it from their front porch,” Burke said, noting the previous location across from Mechanic Street sat much lower.
A balloon spanning six-foot in width will be floated over the fairgrounds starting next week to show the public what the view of the fireworks may look like.
“If you can see the balloon, you can see the fireworks,” Burke said, “so you can pick your vantage point.”
Parking will be allowed at the fairgrounds as space allows, but only through the access gate near the DMV. Gate 4 will be closed.
Stanley Town Manager Terry Pettit noted that the annual homecoming festivities there have been “postponed — not canceled.”
“We are hoping to have a smaller event later on,” Pettit said, “so we are promoting everyone go to Luray and watch fireworks.”
Pettit said Stanley’s town parks are now open, and he hopes the Hawksbill Pool will open in two weeks when the state potentially enters Phase III of the governor’s reopening plan. If the state remains in Phase II, limiting crowds to 50, the pool may begin renting out to private parties.
Parks are also open in the Town of Shenandoah, according to Town Manager Juanita Roudabush. All events “are a go” for July, she said at Thursday’s meeting, with the first public event being Music in the Park on Friday, June 26.
The Town of Luray has also opened its parks to the public once again and will start taking reservations for shelters in July. The town is trying to get lifeguards certified to work the “best beach in the Shenandoah Valley” for July and August, according to Burke.
Luray’s “Downtown Get Down”— planned in coordination with the Luray Downtown Initiative — has been postponed from June to September. Noting that many other smaller events have been pushed back to later summer, Burke said things should be much busier in a few weeks.
“Hopefully, we will have a jam-packed late summer with a number of things coming in July,” he said.
Pettit said the same was true of Stanley, and “if everybody can hang on until late July and August, there will be plenty to do and plenty going on.”
The overall purpose of Thursday’s virtual meeting hosted by the Chamber was to update the community on measures taken by each town during the current pandemic, and let them know what to expect moving forward.
“We have to get used to the new normal,” Pettit said. “It will never be the old normal again.”
Hand sanitizing stations and plexiglass barriers may now become common at town offices, parks and other public facilities. All three town councils will meet in-person again in July, and allow the public to attend on a limited basis under whatever guidelines are in place at the time.
Burke said that Luray will only be able to allow up to 22 members of the public to attend council meetings in the near future, in order to maintain proper social distancing. Every other row of seating in the council chambers will be roped off. However, the town does plan to continue offering livestreams of their meetings online.
“We are looking forward to getting the public back involved in our meetings, but we plan to continue offering a digital platform,” Burke said. “We saw maybe two to four people attend our [council] meetings in the past, and now we’re seeing 600 watch the meeting on Facebook.”
The Shenandoah Council will end their conference calls and actually meet in person for the first time since March on Tuesday, June 23.
After public hearings and a council meeting next Wednesday, June 17, at the Stanley Fire Hall, the Stanley Council plans to move back to town hall in July.
One topic the group discussed was the impact on tourism dollars and related taxes, such as lodging, meals and other spending. All three town managers said that many local businesses quickly adapted to the changing environment and were able to maintain a revenue stream, although it may have been much less than under normal circumstances.
“[Luray] took a look at its capital expenses and identified some things that we could delay until the revenue is restored back to where we anticipate it will get to,” Burke said.
The town managers also noted the “waiting game” to see how bad the local economy was actually impacted by the pandemic. The biggest impact for the three towns will likely come in the form of reduced funds from the transiency occupancy tax, or TOT.
“We’re just waiting to see what that’s going to be,” Pettit said. “We will have to cover anything that the TOT funds would have covered, but the events won’t suffer. We will have the events.”
All three towns reported that utility customers “for the most part” paid their bills during these difficult times, and for those who couldn’t, each town tried to work with the customer.
“The one thing that come from all this,” Pettit said, “so many people did not realize that you can pay bills over the phone… and that we had a drop box.”
Pettit noted during Thursday’s meeting that dealing with COVID-19 has made everyone more aware, and more prepared, if something like this happens again.
“We all know this could happen again, but we should be better prepared for it,” the Stanley town manager said. “It will lead to better communication and improvements in how we let the public know what’s going on.”
After “getting past the initial learning curve” and “learning a new way to operate,” one key to successfully dealing with a litany of community issues for the three town managers was cooperation and communication.
“Once anyone found out something, they shared it with everyone else,” Roudabush said. “I think it definitely changed the way everybody operates.
“Buy local, now more than ever,” Roudabush continued. “Spread the love around. What’s good for one, is good for all. I hope we all embrace a renewed sense of buy local.”
All three town managers recognized the “flexibility” of their town staffs and how they adjusted to provide town services. But the overall message and feeling of the one-hour meeting, was a renewed sense of cooperation between the three towns that the pandemic has now strengthened.
“We may be three different towns,” Pettit said, “but we talk all the time, and we are like one big family.”