KEARNEY — Due to concerns over public gatherings and social distancing guidelines in place by Clay County in light of COVID-19, Kearney city leaders decided Monday, May 18, to cancel the Kearney Amphitheater’s 2020 summer entertainment schedule as well as the annual July 3 fireworks celebration.
Before aldermen voted to approve the cancellation at their digitally-held Board of Aldermen meeting Monday, City Administrator Jim Eldridge told aldermen he thought canceling the events was the best option as the city and county are only recently entering the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having events that bring in hundreds of residents and visitors may not be in the best public interest or in alignment with Clay County Public Health Center’s recommendations for public gatherings, he said.
“I want to point out that we are in Step 1 of the Phase 2 recovery plan of Clay County, which currently prohibits groups larger than 25 congregating. If we moved through to even Step 4, that would limit groups of no larger than 250,” Eldridge said, adding that events at the amphitheater, particularly the July 3 Independence Day celebration, brings in hundreds more than what would be allowed.
“We’d ask the board’s approval of this action as we need to notify our fireworks vendor and need to be confirming this action with our partners, the Kearney Lion’s Club and the Knights of Columbus,” he said, adding the decision was not easy to make as it will cost the city thousands in beverage sales sponsorship with North Kansas City Beverage Co.
Alderman Gerri Spencer said her “heart was breaking” to make the decision, but she made the motion to cancel.
“I think this is very hard. At a time like this, patriotism is so important, but ... I would hate to put even one person at jeopardy,” Spencer said. "It makes me a little misty-eyed to do this."
Aldermen used descriptors like “begrudgingly” and “sadly” before voting unanimously 4-0 to approve canceling the events.
"I concur with Gerri, it's hard," said Alderman Marie Steiner, who seconded the motion.
Since this story was first published online Monday, May 18, nearly 100 comments have been left on the Courier-Tribune's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MyCourierTribune, with a majority upset by the decision.
"We need leaders who are not afraid of their own shadows! This has gone on too long and we need something positive to look forward to," wrote Mike Mayfield.
"It was one of the few celebrations we could look forward to as a community during this time. Is there anyway to have the fireworks display in town? Maybe at the high school? You can social distance with parking spread out. There has to be a hill somewhere that would make them visible to many people," wrote Melissa Jenkins Archer.
"I think this is a little premature," wrote Jeremy Brick.
"That's dumb," wrote Jenni Jones McClung.
While most reactions were negative, a few leaned the other way.
"Well played. See you next year," wrote David Kroeger.
"Stay, home so we can have a next year," wrote Jenece Saunders.
"This is sad, but I’m sure that the people in charge have researched and discussed the pros and cons. Both of these functions not only brings our community, but many more from other distant areas, so that puts Kearney people at risk. In order to not be liable for the expense involved, decisions must be made in advance," wrote Linda Poage. "So sorry that our normal as changed, but looking forward to our old world back in the future."
Kearney isn't the first city in the region or the Northland to cancel its annual Fourth of July celebration. Earlier this month, Liberty city leaders canceled Liberty Fest in light of public health guidelines in place.
Since Kearney's cancellation, Mayor Randy Pogue said there appears to be a lot of misinformation circulating on the matter.
"This is strictly due to the Clay County, Missouri Public Health Center’s order in effect," he wrote on his mayoral Facebook Page, www.facebook.com/MayorRandyPogue, Wednesday, May 20. "Best case, Step 4 of the Phase 2 Recovery would still limit any gathering, public or not, to no more than 250 people. Being a municipality in Clay County, Missouri, we must abide by the same. There is no way to limit the event at Jesse James Park to 250 people. For this reason, your four alderman unanimously approved staff's request. I support the board and staff on this tough decision."
Pogue added canceling the city's event does not mean people cannot celebrate on their property.
"Please understand this does not stop you from celebrating safely or purchasing fireworks," he said. "The city of Kearney will be issuing fireworks tent permits as usual."