Riverfest cancelled due to COVID concerns

By Bill Gamblin | Special to the Press Gazette

Milton and Santa Rosa County were disappointed not to enjoy fireworks this past Fourth of July, but there was hope for Sept. 5.

Now the bell has tolled for this date and Riverfest as residents and guests have come to know and love is just another casualty caused by the coronavirus.

A look of the Milton Riverwalk as a crowd starts to gather for the annual fireworks show which closes out Milton Riverfest.

“This was one of our biggest events,” according to Donna Tucker CEO of the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce. “This was a huge opportunity to showcase Milton to everyone.

Tucker said it has had a huge impact on many other businesses and groups outside of the ar

“When you look at the car show, motorcycle show, the duck race and other events, they were a huge help to those groups and their local efforts,” Tucker said. “I know this is the Blackwater Pyrates only fundraiser, while it brought a huge awareness and was a fundraiser as well for the local ABATE Chapter.”

The Blackwater Pyrates, with the assist of a city of Milton endloader, release the ducks into the Blackwater River for the annual Blackwater Pyrates Duck Race.

While leaving a void overall, the Pyrates are planning to continue with their efforts this year by holding a drawing at noon on Sept. 5 at the Riverwalk South Pavilion to replace the annual Blackwater River Duck Race.

“Last year we tried to do things a little differently with items for the kids along with the duck race,” said Mark “Captain Murky” Flores of the Blackwater Pyrates. “We are fortunate that we are not like some of the vendors and businesses who depend on the success of Riverfest each year.

“This year our duck sales were down 40 percent, but we are fortunate to continue to do the things we normally do.”

The Pyrates offer scholarships to graduate students at the University of West Florida who study marine science as well as working on river cleanup, the purchase of life jackets, support of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary, and other outreach programs that involve Santa Rosa County.

Here is a riverbank view of the ducks crusing down the Blackwater River to see who will finish first. Each duck is numbered and the lucky purchaser of the duck will receive a cash prize.

But the impact of the cancellation itself effects many groups and organizations as Tucker pointed out, including some new businesses to the local area.

“New businesses in the area who set up and participate in Riverfest raise awareness of what they offer to the community,” said Tucker. “After this event I find out the awareness of their business just explodes.

“It really puts them on the map.”

Tucker pointed out that throughout the entire day’s events there are somewhere between 20 to 30,000 people who visit the downtown area.

“This is one of the largest attended events in all of the area,” said Tucker. “As we get ready for the fireworks, places like the Bagdad Mill Site is full, as well as Russell Harber Landing, cars are lined up on Highway 90 and the parking areas downtown are packed.

“So, there was definitely no way to social distance even if we could get a permit.”

A picture of a past Riverfest fireworks show highlights the downtown Milton skyline.

Some may feel this decision was decided upon locally, but Tucker explained they could not get a permit through the state for the event.

“The state would not allow us to get a permit for the event and fireworks,” said Tucker. “So, no permit means no insurance and no insurance meets we cannot have an event.

“To this day we still can’t get a permit and if we could there is so much prep work involved, we couldn’t do it.”

Some of the others affected from this cancellation include the Milton NJROTC who put in a very long day during Riverfest with their cleanup efforts and volunteer hours.

“This decision unfortunately was very far reaching in many different ways,” Tucker said.

The Milton High School Band Boosters are one of the local organizations that have been hurt by the number of events being cancelled due to COVID-19. The band boosters use events like Riverfest to help fund the Mighty Black and Gold's efforts in band competitions as well as other school-related functions.

Besides the NJROTC, other school-based organizations have been impacted including the Milton High School and their shish kebab sales.

With this, some wonder how other fall events like Beaches to Woodlands, which covers all of Santa Rosa County, could or will be affected as questions remain regarding COVID-19.