BUCKHANNON – Would a physically distanced Buckhannon-Upshur High School Homecoming parade through city streets violate Governor Jim Justice’s executive order prohibiting large gatherings and outdoor fairs and festivals?
That’s the question Buckhannon City Council is facing after a member of B-UHS Student Council approached city officials Thursday at council’s meeting asking for input on how to stage a safe, physically/socially distanced Homecoming Parade Wednesday, Sept. 23.
Hank Phillips, a representative from student council, appeared before council to seek feedback regarding the Sept. 23 parade.
“We, as student council, have already discussed several areas [concerning public health and COVID-19], but still need your approval and guidance in keeping our students and community safe,” Phillips said.
Phillips said only Homecoming Court members, high school fall sports teams, the B-UHS Band and two representatives from each class carrying a graduation year banner would participate in the parade.
“This will rule out several of our usual parade participants, but still keeps things to a safe minimum while upholding the tradition of our town,” Phillips said. “Again, we will be coming out with guidelines, but I would like to know your input for us to make it a safe event for people to enjoy during these hard times.”
Other ideas Phillips suggested encompassed Homecoming Court members riding in their own vehicles, regardless of title or position on the court; everyone in the parade and in attendance wearing a mask; and six-foot demarcations etched out along the parade route.
“The pep rally in Jawbone Park also needs to be practiced in a safe manner, and I’m here to ask for any recommendations,” he concluded.
City attorney Tom O’Neill asked if the Upshur County Board of Education had endorsed the parade, and Phillips replied that he wasn’t sure but believed high school administrators were aware of the parade.
O’Neill said he was concerned that allowing a parade and pep rally could be a violation of Justice’s executive order, No. 51-20, which limits group gatherings to 25.
According to the order, the 25-person limitation “applies only to purely social gatherings.”
“It does not apply to any activity, business, or entity that has been deemed essential, such as religious services, weddings, or group meetings, conferences, or other special events held for essential businesses and operations, as defined by Executive Order 9-20, as amended,” the press release says.
However, on the same day, Justice announced Executive Order 51-20 would also shut down “all fairs, festivals, and similar events” and ban both indoor and outdoor concerts across the Mountain State.
O’Neill said the first logical step would be for the Upshur BOE to determine whether it intended to endorse a Homecoming Parade.
“The concern I expressed to council is how to conduct this activity in compliance with the governor’s executive order,” O’Neill said. “I think ultimately the Board of Education really needs to make a determination whether or not they are going to endorse or approve this activity.”
O’Neill said he believed that although parade participants could easily physically-distance, he was less sure if that would be feasible for paradegoers.
“The question is not about participants … the question is two part – First, would the folks along the parade route [physically distance]? And second, is this even a legal activity to have right now in light of the governor’s executive order?” he asked.
“In reviewing the application on the pep rally, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t think that the pep rally is lawful within the context of the executive order,” O’Neill added.
Councilwoman Mary Albaugh suggested city officials discuss the issue with BOE members prior to their next regularly scheduled meeting, which is now slated for 6 p.m., Sept. 15 at Rock Cave Elementary School.
“Can we do some dialogue with the BOE there or maybe ask to get it on their agenda?” Albaugh asked.
“The precedent that we’ve set here under this executive order is that other festivals and other proposed community activities that involve things like parades and outdoor gatherings, we have been compelled by this executive order to decline the permits for them,” O’Neill said. “I have difficulty drawing a distinction between what those groups asked for and what the student council is asking for in respect to the Homecoming Parade. I certainly don’t relish saying no to the Homecoming Parade or at least advising you that way.”
Councilman Dave Thomas wanted to know if the Buckhannon-Upshur High School Football team would be playing this season, and councilman CJ Rylands informed him the first game was set to kick off Friday, Sept. 4, at home against Ripley.
“That makes you wonder, if you extrapolate the executive order, where the line of demarcation is,” Thomas said. “I’m glad they’re going to have football, but it makes you wonder.”
Rylands said he thought the line was “a little fuzzy.”
“I’m just sorry, I think a lot of these [rules] with COVID are arbitrary and capricious, in my opinion,” Thomas said. “With football, you’ve got 11 people on the team on the field, so you’ve got 22 people at the same time, and how many people do you have sitting on the sidelines on the benches? How many people in the locker rooms?”
O’Neill said the city has no input into whether or not high school football seasons are permitted.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to rant,” Thomas replied.
O’Neill suggested checking to see if other high schools in West Virginia are hosting Homecoming Parades, and if so, studying what measures they’re taking to keep participants and audience members safe.
Rylands said council should ponder the issue.
“We have some time to look into it and see what other people are doing and study the best practices,” Rylands told Phillips. “I think you and your associates ought to be commended for doing what you can with what you got and where you are. These circumstances abnormal at best, and you do what you can.”
Mayor Robbie Skinner said council did not want to rain on a B-UHS Homecoming Parade.
“Nobody here wants to say no,” he said. “All of us really want to say yes. Let’s talk with the Board of Education, and we can discuss it more at our next council meeting, which is before the parade. Let’s see if we can’t have a final decision by then.”