Days of ‘47 Pioneer Day events postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic

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Utah’s traditional Days of ’47 Pioneer Day celebrations in July have been postponed until summer 2021 due to the pandemic.

In the latest blow to cultural normalcy in the Beehive State, Days of ’47 board president Lane Summerhays announced late Tuesday this year’s July 24 parade, rodeo and days of banquets, royalty pageants and related festivities showcasing Utah’s pioneer heritage would be held next year, as a result of both short-term and long-range worries from the spread of COVID-19.

The postponement, which followed a Tuesday meeting online by the event’s board of trustees, Summerhays said, “was not taken lightly” and reflected public health guidelines from state officials and Salt Lake County.

“A deadline had to be imposed,” trustees said in a joint statement, “and the decision had to be made now.”

Greg James, Days of ’47 executive vice president, said in an interview that while organizers are deeply disappointed, the board’s “genuine, honest and straightforward discussion“ came down to minimizing public health risks — even though conditions could change by July.

“I wish there was a better solution,” he said. “But if this board thought for one minute, one person got infected or one person died as a result, it would be devastating. It just wouldn’t be worth it to us or to the community.”

Those concerns included not only the prospect of bringing more than 200,000 attendees to the downtown Salt Lake City parade route in late July, many of whom camp along the route the night before.

Days of ’47 also involves months of advance work that would otherwise be underway by now, including building parade floats and vetting school marching bands. Those activities require large gatherings, James said, where effective social distancing in scores of garages, warehouses and other venues across the state would be all but impossible to ensure.

“People are social animals. They get together and do things,” James said. “So it was unmanageable.”

The annual celebration of Utah’s founding and pioneer heritage July 24 is among the state’s most heavily attended summer events. The several days of festivities usually draw huge crowds to Salt Lake City’s downtown, particularly for the parade and rodeo, as well as participation from hundreds of members of LDS Church wards and stakes, community organizations, businesses, elected leaders and other groups.

The morning parade is televised live in Utah and adjoining states on KSL-TV, a subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said late Tuesday that officials with Days of ’47 Inc. made the right decision for this year, given that “our number one priority in this pandemic is our community’s health — both physical and economic.”

“A gathering of that scale would be unwise to count on at this point and potentially cause an additional delay in our recovery,” Mendenhall said.

Organizers are calling their decision a postponement instead of a cancellation as this year’s event theme — “Pioneer Spirit: Alive Today!” — and key awardees and royalty selections will remain in place for 2021 events.

“Are we starting over fresh next year? The answer is no,” James said. “We’ll be starting from where we are now.”

This year’s Days of ’47 royalty pageant, set for April 10-11 in Bountiful, had already been scrubbed in light of stay-at-home orders along the Wasatch Front.

And, in spite of an announcement by Gov. Gary Herbert that some portions of Utah’s economy will begin opening this Friday, a May 15 cleanup at This Is The Place was looking dicey when Tuesday’s decision was announced.

Other events including the well-attended Pops Concert at Abravanel Hall set for July 10-11; the Pioneers of Progress awards banquet on July 16; and a traditional float preview in Sandy, scheduled for July 20-21, have all now been pushed to the same window in 2021.

The Day of ’47 centerpiece parade through Salt Lake City was first held in 1859, marking the July 24, 1847, arrival in the Salt Lake Valley of Brigham Young and a band of Mormon settlers. The event has seen at least three past postponements since, one during World War I and two during World War II.

Although Tuesday’s decision does not greatly affect the Day of ’47 overall budget, James said, postponement of the weekend’s Cowboy Games and Rodeo at the Utah State Fairpark, which typically draws 50,000 attendees, was a sharp financial blow to “a lot of cowboys whose livelihoods are affected.”

As one of the country’s few remaining “million-dollar rodeos,“ he said, “this is a lot of money out of some hardworking guys’ pockets — and I think everyone feels bad about that.”

In their statement, Days of ’47 board members said they wanted to assure the public that plans will proceed for all Days of ’47 events next year, “hopefully in ways that will amply compensate for this year’s loss.”

James confirmed that special events were under consideration for the 2021 celebrations, “things that’ll be fun and enjoyable and different.”

“Maybe we can’t do them every year,” he said, “but we think we need to celebrate the end of a pandemic and the founding of this state together.”