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Communities around Alaska canceled Fourth of July celebrations to slow COVID-19. Now unsanctioned events are replacing them.

Craft and food vendors and their customers gather on South Valley Way in Palmer for the Friday Fling event on June 26. The Valley Freedom Festival, to be held in Palmer over two days in celebration of the Independence Day holiday, sprang up after Wasilla canceled its traditional Fourth of July celebration. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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As Alaska’s COVID-19 case counts soared, Anchorage and almost every community around the state canceled Independence Day celebrations to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Now popping up are alternative celebrations such as parades, but also a sing-along and a pie-eating contest — just the type of close-up activities officials wanted to avoid to minimize the potential spread of infection.

An organizer urged people in Homer to come out to a Fourth of July march with a Facebook post: “I say we bring our flags our drums and our guns out.” In Juneau, where local officials discouraged large social gatherings, plans included an unpermitted parade.

And in Palmer, hundreds are expected to celebrate the holiday with the two-day Valley Freedom Festival that features vendors, a pie-eating contest and a parade down Palmer’s main street — with full support of the city’s mayor despite local concerns.

“There are a lot of people that want to get out and celebrate the Fourth of July,” Palmer Mayor Edna DeVries said Monday. “There will be plenty of social distancing. People will be able to wear masks if they want to.”

DeVries said she supported the event for the same reason she supported a Black Lives Matter rally in early June with a large crowd that included Second Amendment supporters.

“People have a right to freely assemble,” she said. “So I’m standing with that.”

Palmer’s weekly “Friday Flings” are still happening, a summer tradition with food trucks, vendor booths and music that draw crowds to a fairly restricted area. Health officials do say that outdoor events are preferable to people packed together indoors.

But some Palmer residents are worried that crowds at the Valley Freedom Festival on Friday and Saturday could bring more COVID-19 that eventually spreads to people who don’t even choose to attend.

Someone posted a question on a popular local Facebook group on Wednesday: “Is anyone else worried that the crowds coming to Palmer from other communities might exacerbate the situation here in our little town?”

The site’s administrator shut off comments, saying the almost 40 responses generated within 20 minutes violated guidelines banning “snarky” language.

Mat-Su cases surging

Alaska’s COVID-19 cases rose after Memorial Day weekend gatherings, state health officials say. Now case counts are surging again and the active infection rate hits new highs daily.

Mat-Su this week was experiencing a spike in cases, especially in the cities of Palmer and Wasilla. The reported count in Mat-Su residents rose to 102 by Thursday — an increase of 20 cases in two days.

State officials said the rising cases will eventually lead to more hospitalizations and implored safe practices as Alaskans geared up for the holiday weekend ahead.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, when asked about the alternative Fourth of July events, urged participants to practice social distancing and wear masks, a step his administration has not required.

“For folks that are going to be in large congregations, groups, it’s just a fact when you get closer together, you increase the risk of spreading this virus,” Dunleavy said Tuesday.

The top emergency doctor at the only hospital in Mat-Su issued a grim warning this week about the importance of wearing masks, citing a large study showing 8% weekly growth of infections in countries with widespread masking compared to 54% in those without.

Dr. Thomas Quimby saw a middle-aged COVID-19 patient recently. The patient had been sick for a week yet was still getting sicker.

Quimby, the emergency department director at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, said the patient was having trouble breathing. An X-ray revealed telltale spots on their lungs.

At that point the person didn’t need oxygen, he said. But there was nothing else the doctor could do. He feared the patient would need to be admitted in the future.

“That was a really awful feeling to look at this person and see how they were suffering and to just be helpless as a clinician,” Quimby said at a community briefing Wednesday. “I just want to remind everyone: that’s still this disease that we’re dealing with.”

‘Let Freedom Ring’

The Valley Freedom Festival arose after Wasilla canceled its traditional Fourth of July celebration, organizers say.

“Valley residents rose up and demanded something be done,” the event website says. “The Valley is an independent place, made up of people who are smart, caring, resilient, and FREE. The Valley Freedom Festival is a testament to the people of the Valley and our demand to Let Freedom Ring.”

Organizer Haylee Kurka, a local business owner, said she’s one of numerous businesspeople putting on the event with their own money.

Kurka on Wednesday said she’s expecting attendance numbers anywhere from “the high hundreds to a couple thousand,” given the public event cancellations around Southcentral.

Matanuska Peak is visible from downtown Palmer on Tuesday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Freedom Festival will station food trucks and vendors in the parking lot of the MTA Events Center near Palmer’s middle school. The schedule includes a pie-eating contest, sing-along, national cloggers and the big parade down Palmer’s main street on Saturday.

There are more than 20 floats signed up to take part in the parade.

Attendees are encouraged to bring “lawn chairs, picnic blankets, good attitude, and cheerful heart,” the event site says.

They are not required to wear masks nor follow other COVID-19 mandates, restrictions or dictates.

Asked how organizers are dealing with surging numbers of coronavirus cases, Kurka said the event is entirely outdoors, and it has a mitigation plan based on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the state’s new cases are associated with bars and other indoor spaces, health officials say.

“We’re also recognizing you do have a personal responsibility,” Kurka said. “If you don’t want to be potentially exposed to the virus, we would think that people wouldn’t attend. There’s not going to be much other than that ... it’s definitely based on what people feel comfortable with.”

Palmer issued a special-events permit on June 12 but is not planning to provide additional personnel, according to Palmer City Manager John Moosey. Organizers met with public works officials and the police chief.

Palmer falls within the Mat-Su Borough, but the borough lacks authority to order masks at an event like this, Borough Mayor Vern Halter said. That’s up to the mayor of Palmer, who has the authority to require masks or restrict events.

Halter said he’d “highly recommend” people attending wear masks.

“A big parade, people close together — it’s probably the exact opposite of what we should be doing,” he said.

The annual Glacier View Fourth of July (Car Launch) is also going on as scheduled out the Glenn Highway. The Mat-Su events are among the few scheduled holiday festivities.

‘Too big of a risk'

Palmer’s neighboring city of Wasilla canceled Fourth of July plans two months ago. That decision was made as much over the unknowns surrounding this year’s fire danger as the threat of the pandemic, Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle said this week.

But given the resurgence of the novel coronavirus, Cottle said he wouldn’t be comfortable approving a parade in the narrow confines of the city’s 1-mile route.

“With the outbreaks that we’re having now, you can’t put 7,000 to 10,000 people on Main Street shoulder to shoulder and have to worry about social distancing, stuff like that,” Cottle said Monday. “I can’t do that. That’s too big of a risk.”

Anchorage and most other communities canceled Independence Day celebrations ahead of the weekend.

Lawmakers in Juneau this week voted against an emergency ordinance that would have allowed fireworks to go ahead this weekend.

Officials in Seward this week canceled Fourth of July events entirely and implemented a series of measures on mask-wearing, gathering sizes and business capacity amid a growing coronavirus outbreak in that Kenai Peninsula city.

Homer’s Chamber of Commerce canceled that community’s parade “fairly early on in this whole COVID situation,” said chamber director Brad Anderson, adding the decision seemed right this week given the recent uptick in case numbers,

The parade can draw more than a thousand people. But a number of participants didn’t feel comfortable even getting close together enough to build the floats, Anderson said.

The chamber also planned to celebrate first responders and health care workers with the parade, he said. “They were the ones that said, ‘Hey look, in bringing people together, this probably isn’t the right direction for us this year.‘”

An Anchor Point man is proposing an alternate parade Saturday from the elementary school to the Homer Spit, according to a widely viewed post on a local Facebook group that had attracted hundreds of comments. Organizer Matthew Mitchell recommended that route so people could spread out but still watch the bikes, cars, trucks, jeeps, tractors “or other parade vehicle” go by.

“This call out is to all Veterans, Patriots and pure-blooded Americans,” Mitchell posted Sunday. “This parade is for the people by the people of Free men and women. Who are ready to get off the sidelines and show we will not stand for or tolerate dictatorship or tyranny over our Freedom. We are Free People.”

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