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Cities Come Together During Holidays Despite Restrictions

Community engagement over the holidays must, and will, go on

The word “adapt” has become synonymous with this past year. 2020 has been a year of unprecedented change, which has forced all parts of society to adapt repeatedly to those changes. From the overnight shift to online learning and governance to the shuttering of non-essential businesses, we have all come face-to-face with change. Cities across the country have grappled with these changes and continue to adapt to meet the needs of the time, including connecting with the community during our current holiday season. 

When we think about the holidays pre-pandemic, images of crowding around the town Christmas tree lighting and bustling malls may come to mind. Both of those images seem impossible to envision now as we seek to socially distance and prepare for a season in which doctors predict an increase in case numbers. However, that has not deterred cities all over the country from bringing some holiday cheer to their residents and communities. 

It is difficult to adapt holiday events originally designed for in-person engagement, but Orange County, FL and Muskegon, MI have figured out some creative ways to host tree lightings. In Orange County, the ceremony was aired live for community members to view in the comfort of their own homes. Orlando, FL is requiring that all events, including the annual Winter Park Christmas parade, have a safety plan, and that modifications be made to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. In Michigan, the tree lighting was drive-in, and attendees were asked to park their vehicles in a lot across the street from the event. The Chabad in Orange County, NY hosted a virtual and drive-in menorah lighting for Hanukkah this year

As the holiday season continues, cities and community organizations are also adapting entertainment events.

Lake Zurich Church near Chicago, IL turned their annual Christmas pageant show into an outdoor walkthrough Christmas Luminary Hike. Pre-pandemic, the show drew 8,000 local residents annually. Medford, MA has adapted their annual Frank Sinatra holiday show by making it a virtual stream for audiences seated outside, to meet state restrictions on singing in an indoor space. Looking towards the New Year, the famous New York Times Square ball drop, complete with performances and the countdown, will be virtual. 

The holiday season is a time for celebrating and giving. From annual toy drives to food distribution services, local governments are taking extra steps to ensure those in need are also included. In Alameda County, CA, the Sheriff’s Office is collecting toys for children in poverty: “the toy drive is organized by the Crime Prevention Team, and it helps strengthen relationships between law enforcement and communities.” Sunnyvale, CA is holding a series of drive-thru gift card and food distribution events at the Sunnyvale Community Services parking lot for families in need. In Texas, the Goodfellow Fund team is working with Tarrant Area Food Bank to provide food boxes not only for children in need but also for all residents after receiving a letter in the mail from an 80-year old resident named Rose. 

Local small businesses have been hit especially hard this year in light of COVID-19 restrictions and the continuing trend of shopping online. Many shop owners are hopeful as they see cities like Akron, OH and Muskegon, MI encouraging residents to do their holiday shopping at locally-owned businesses. Mountain View, CA has allowed businesses to temporarily operate outside with minimal city permitting, licensing, or approval, but with mandatory health requirements. San Diego, CA moved the holiday market outside through private partnerships and is keeping it open this year to support local artisans making everything in their city. 

It is encouraging to see that community, along with holiday cheer, is a continued priority for cities as they grapple with difficult decisions around COVID-19 restrictions. From entertainment to giving, the focus is on community health and well-being.

Perhaps Rabbi Pesach Burston of the Orange County Chabad summarizes it best: “The (Hanukkah) story may have happened in the past, but it speaks to the present. The menorah talks about overcoming challenge. Every year is a different challenge. This year is a tough one, and it affects everyone. But the message of the menorah is we are going to find ways to shine.” Indeed, that is the story of every community this year: the holiday season will continue to inspire joy and engage residents amidst pandemic challenges.

Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna is the assistant director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University