COVINGTON, Ga. — Fourth of July will appear closer to normal in Newton County this year.
After nearly 45 minutes of discussion Monday night, the Covington City Council opted to host its annual Independence Day event where it has always been — the Town Square.
Officials weighed the pros and cons of a Fourth of July fireworks show being held at the Covington Town Center site versus the Square. In the end, tradition won the day as the council voted to approve hosting the fireworks show “as we always have,” minus the usual festival and food vendors.
Five total motions were made, in which the council only voted on two to reach a consensus.
Councilwoman Fleeta Baggett first motioned to move the event to the Covington Town Center. When factoring in the potential crowd size and trying to reinforce the need to socially distance, the councilwoman said the new location was “our best option.”
If held at the Town Center, Community Development Coordinator Trey Sanders said the plan was to shoot fireworks from City Pond Park north of the Town Center, but there were two obstacles that would come with the location.
The first issue was parking and identifying the best location for spectators to watch from. Sanders said there could be construction taking place at the time of the event, which would make for an interesting situation not only from a visibility standpoint, but also a liability standpoint.
The second problem involved the tract of land that would potentially be used. According to Sanders, a portion of the property was for sale. If the city committed to the location, issues could arise in the event of a change in ownership between now and the time of the event, he said.
On the other side of town, the council and city staff also raised concerns with hosting the event at the Square. The chief concern was the ability, or inability, to manage crowds, even if there were limitations on how many people could attend.
Whether the Square is closed off or not, Sanders said the city couldn’t really stop people from crowding elsewhere.
“How do you stop them from lining up Washington, Pace and Floyd streets?” Sanders said. “At that point you’re moving the problem from the Square to Morgan Plaza, Newton Plaza and (other places).”
“I think both comes with big challenges in trying to put something together like this, but it's doable,” Assistant Police Chief Phillip Bradford said. “We can make it happen, but it’s going to be a feat to pull it off.”
During the in-depth discussion, Robert Foxworth, a Newton County resident who has helped raise money and put on the fireworks display for several years, said he thought hosting the event at the Town Center would be a mistake.
“We’ll make it happen no matter what, but y’all are concerned about your citizens,” Foxworth said. “You’re cheating a lot of citizens by having it [at the Covington Town Center] because it's very limited. When we met a couple weeks ago — this might be a bad scenario but it’s like taking a NFL crowd and putting them in a high school stadium. It’s very limited out there. There’s buildings that’s going to be erected out there, and who’s going to be responsible? You’re going to get so many cars out there … the roads in and out of there are limited. People are going to stop along I-20 — they do anyway.”
Foxworth noted that making people social distance was an impossible task, but believed they would likely do it on their own anyway.
“You can encourage it,” he said. “You can encourage them to wear masks, but we’re not two months into this virus. We’ve been doing this over a year. People are concerned … People will social distance themselves. If y’all limit the Square to 2,000 people, y’all can’t stop people from congregating.”
Foxworth said regardless of the location, a big show was being planned. But in order to make it the best show possible, a decision needed to be made immediately.
“The year before last, the show was $49,000. This year it tops over $60,000. We’ve got a huge, huge show planned. We’ve got to know now of the location because the company we get our shells from, they choreograph it. Usually in January they start this — December to January. We’re in April. We can’t wait no longer.”
Depending on the location, Foxworth said the type of firework shells could change. If the council chose the Town Center, “everything is going to be different,” he said.
“This show that we’ve been putting on — we’re one of the top shows in the Southeast,” Foxworth said. “We’re proud of this. We work very hard — we’re planning next year’s show now. We don’t just throw this together a month or two before and that’s it. We’ve put our heart and soul into this.
“Whatever the council wants to do, if you want to have it out there (at the Town Center) we’ll put on the best show we can out there, but there’s a lot of obstacles,” he continued. “Personally, I think it would be a mistake. I would have it just like we’ve been having it. We’re not having the festival. We’re not having the food vendors. People can come and go; they can social distance.
“If somebody don’t like it and they’re worried about it, they can stay home,” he added.
Mayor Steve Horton then reminded the council of Baggett’s motion on the floor. Councilman Kenneth Morgan seconded the motion. Council members were split, voting 3-3.
Horton then broke the tie, causing the motion to fail 3-4. He believed the questions surrounding the Town Center site were too concerning.
Councilwoman Susie Keck immediately fired off a motion to keep the fireworks event at the Square. She said the “chance of unknowns happening” was greater at the Town Center than it would be at the Square. She also pointed out that the event may have never been held at the Town Center again.
“I think we should keep it at the Square,” Keck said.
Horton interjected with his thoughts on the matter.
“We’ve only got one shot to get this right,” the mayor said. “And I just think we’ve got to have all the discussion we need to [do that]. And I don’t know what the answer is myself. If you ask me, I would say we’re probably too far into doing this, but my comment would be not even do it this year.
“We’ve got to do what’s safe for the community,” he said.
City staff members then asked if any stipulations would be placed on Keck’s motion.
Horton said an option he saw was to not close streets if holding the event downtown.
Baggett said her only opposition to the downtown plan was trying to limit the number of spectators and make it a ticketed event, as initially proposed by city staff members to combat large crowds.
Keck then changed her motion to have the event downtown and only close the designated fireworks fallout area.
Confusion about street closures and how they would affect crowd safety later prompted Keck to change her motion a third time. She moved to keep the event on the Square and wait for street closure recommendations from the police department and the community development department.
Councilman Don Floyd then raised a question concerning Keck’s amended motion.
“If we’re going to do it the same way we’ve always done it, then why would we have to come back for [the police department and community development department] to tell us how they’ve always done it?” he asked.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams agreed and said, “for time’s sake,” the council should just hold the event as the city always has.
Keck then made a final motion to host the fireworks event as the city always has, as it pertains to road closures, but without its usual festival and food vendors.
The motion passed 5-1. Morgan opposed.