PITTSFIELD — For the first time in more than 40 years, the streets of downtown won't be lined with spectators for the annual Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade.
The parade, which was first held in 1824, is the latest casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a statement released late Wednesday by the committee charged with staging the annual event. The only other years without a parade were 1946 and 1977.
Gov. Charlie Baker outlined plans to slowly reopen the state after months of lockdown designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 6,000 people in Massachusetts — including 37 in the Berkshires.
A parade with tens of thousands of people gathered in a small downtown area was not in the cards.
"After seeing the governor's plan to reopen, we couldn't see how to fit a parade into those guidelines," said parade committee President Peter Marchetti.
As factors in his decision, Marchetti noted many of the marching units would be coming from out of state, and cited the fear some would having marching or lining the parade route.
"If all lights were green, we would have attempted something, no doubt on a smaller scale," he said.
Berkshire Health Systems on Thursday also canceled the Independence Day Run, which is held prior to the parade as a fundraiser for Berkshire Medical Center. The 5K road race features hundreds of runners following the parade route to the finish line at Wahconah Park.
Every year, tens of thousands of people gather downtown to watch the two-hour parade, one of the largest such events in the Northeast. People from across the Berkshires and beyond would arrive in the predawn hours to stake out prime viewing spaces along the route, from South Street, past Park Square and up North Street before turning down Wahconah Street to Wahconah Park.
The decision has drawn mixed reactions, Marchetti said. While some have been understanding, others are worried about the future of this and other large gatherings, he said.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer is among those saying the parade committee made the right call.
"This was a tough decision for the parade committee, and I commend them for taking seriously the public health threat that still exists because of COVID-19," Tyer said in a statement. "I am confident that next year's parade will be better than ever, because we will come together to celebrate victory over COVID-19."
Greylock Federal Credit Union President/CEO John Bissell said canceling the parade make sense. Greylock employees annually create and enter a float in the event.
"The parade represents the heart and soul of our community, and Greylock employees are always proud to participate," Bissell wrote in an email to The Eagle. "The energy and creativity that organizations bring to the parade, we can now use to strengthen our community during this challenging time."
In recent years, local veterans groups have led the marching bands, helium balloons and floats from South and East/West Housatonic streets to the finish at Wahconah Park. With Berkshire communities already having called off traditional Memorial Day parades and ceremonies, a leading city veteran expressed concern about the impact of the cancellations.
"I do not mean to minimize the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and appreciate what our elected officials are trying their best to achieve, in order to protect its citizens, but these patriotic memorial events are all about our freedom and is what we fought and died for," Pittsfield VFW Post 448 Commander Arnie Perras wrote in an email to The Eagle. "Without these events to continually remind us, I am afraid that many citizens could start to forget how we became a free nation and the price that was paid."
By now, the committee would have lined up 100 marching units, with another 60 to 70 expected before the parade stepped off.
From March through July 4 is also the peak fundraising period for the parade committee. So far, only $5,500 has been collected toward the annual goal of $85,000.
Financial woes had the parade tetering on the edge of cancellation last year, but last minute donations flowed in to keep it alive.
The parade started losing money in 2010, but the biggest blow came in 2015, when the committee lost more than $15,000 — fundraising brought in $60,223 and costs came to $75,624.
Last year, the committee's plea for increased contributions led to more than $110,000 in donations, one-time funding and proceeds from the organizer's annual Oldies but Goodies show in November. Nearly half of that money rolled over to this year's parade as 2019 expenses amounted to roughly $60,000, organizers said.
A popular family tradition and a chance for friends to reconnect, the parade is the most-watched program produced by and shown live on Pittsfield Community Television, said PCTV Executive Director Shawn Serre.
"We know how much it means to the Berkshire community and to former Berkshire residents who watch it from far away now every year on the livestream," Serre told The Eagle. "It will definitely seem strange not to be out there with our trucks and cameras setting up on July 3, and the early morning excitement getting everything ready on the morning of the Fourth."
Serre and his staff look to fill the programming void July 4 weekend by showing highlights of past parades broadcast on PCTV, starting July 3.
Meanwhile, the parade committee already has started planning for 2021 for a parade that could look different than years past.
"We've started to contract for musical units and have more special things for next year," Marchetti said. "We'll have to adjust accordingly under the new normal."
Dick Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org