After Blanding canceled its famous Fourth of July celebration due to COVID-19, residents organized their own event

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Toniee Lewis, who helped organize a Fourth of July event after the city canceled the planned celebration, leads the parade down Main Street in Blanding with her family.

Blanding Toniee Lewis, like many of the 3,600 people who live in the southeastern Utah town of Blanding, begins anticipating the Fourth of July months in advance.

The town’s festivities typically draw hundreds of people from across the Four Corners, and last year, the small town boasted it had the largest fireworks display in Utah, sponsored by a doctor who grew up in the area. After the fireworks, some stay up for an all-night softball game.

“It’s a huge family celebration in a small town event,” said Lewis, who owns a photography business and works as a journalist for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. “It’s the annual family reunion where everybody that was from Blanding at one point or another comes back.”

As the United States largely shut down in March and April to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Blanding City officials hoped the event would still be possible. But by May, San Juan County had the highest per capita case rate in Utah, and it seemed unlikely a mass gathering would be legal under state guidelines by July.

At a city council meeting to discuss the event in late May, Council Member Kathrina Perkins worried that the fame of the fireworks display would be a big draw. “Everyone knows we do the best fireworks, so as soon as we put that out there, then everyone changes their plans and comes down here,” she said.

“If it’s over 1,000 people, it’s not authorized,” said Mayor Joe Lyman. “As much as everyone would love to have a fantastic Fourth of July, I don’t believe it is legal to do so.”

The council voted 3-2 to cancel the event.

When the news came down, Lewis said many people were upset about the decision and the statewide restrictions that prompted it, so she joined with a group of seven residents who decided to organize a smaller event of their own.

“I said, ‘That’s it, we’re doing something,’” Lewis recalled. “I didn’t want it to stop this year. I wanted some normalcy back. Normal has been taken away from us as citizens throughout this whole nation, and it’s hard.”

Lewis said the event wasn’t meant to be a protest, adding the organizers don’t take COVID-19 lightly. The coronavirus has hit the southern part of San Juan County, where the Navajo Nation is located, much harder than the towns of Blanding and Monticello, but as of last week over 10% of active cases in the county were in Blanding, according to the San Juan Public Health Department.

“We’re not in any way trying to lower the standards of social distancing,” Lewis said, noting that many people know someone who has been affected by the disease.

The main event was a parade Saturday where ATVs, decorated vehicles and floats in pickup truck beds motored down Main Street. Afterwards, participants gathered at booths set up on private property for food and other sales.

Only a handful of masks were worn among the hundreds who watched or participated in the parade. Spectators mostly gathered spaced out in extended family groups, some wearing matching shirts commemorating their 2020 family reunion.

A local business owner who asked not to be named stood outside her shop on Main Street, and described the event as “weird” compared to typical years where the town is bustling with visitors.

“Families come in two or three days early for family get togethers,” she said. “It’s usually packed.”

But many were thankful organizers managed to salvage a bit of the day’s celebratory spirit. “I’m glad we got it done,” said Shirley Gaines, who watched the parade from the sidewalk, even if the event didn’t live up to its usual glory.

Lewis said some of the best photos she’s ever taken are on the Fourth of July, which she has submitted to the local paper in years past. “They’re those truly genuine photos of children smiling and enjoying what a great day this is,” she said.

This year, however, Lewis stepped out from behind the camera. She sat in a decorated jeep with her family at the front of a parade, waving to the crowd.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.