CONWAY — It’s an Independence Day like none other, as Americans prepare to find socially distant ways to observe the nation’s 244th birthday against a backdrop of coping with a pandemic that is stable in New Hampshire but rising elsewhere.
This holiday weekend is typically the blast-off to a busy summer season. But with no community fireworks displays or parades, it will be the outdoor amenities, combined with safeguards at area shopping centers and restaurants. Many are expecting a busy holiday weekend.
“We certainly apologize for not being able to provide normal festivities that visitors have come to count on, but safety takes precedence,” said Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce on the holiday weekend.
“Normally, the town of Conway hosts well over 10,000 people in Schouler Park for the Fourth, which this year is way over the state mandate for gatherings,” she said.
“But there is a lot that can be done in valley for the Fourth, as long as you follow guidelines. It’s like what Bill Marvel wrote about Tuesday — about going back to what our forefathers did to celebrate with family and an attitude of gratitude of living in a country such as ours, of enjoying a picnic, decorating a children’s bike and flag waving,” said Crawford.
She added that we are fortunate to live in a community that has a lot of things to do, with such enjoyable options as going for a hike in the White Mountain National Forest or canoeing/kayaking/tubing down the Saco.
Then there’s shopping and dining, or visiting some of the local attractions that have opened such as the Conway Scenic Railroad and “The Mountaineer,” its newly rechristened train through Crawford Notch. Or Cranmore and its new mountain bike park or Great Glen Trails and the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
The Mountain Valley Mall cinema opened Thursday, with a reduced Thursday-Sunday schedule and new social-distancing guidelines and policies in place.
The number of shows has also been reduced with staggered screenings of movies every 30 minutes, to avoid large crowds rather than all the films playing at roughly the same time.
For more information and showtimes, go to yourneighborhoodtheatre.com.
According to Charyl Reardon, president of White Mountain Attractions, many attractions have gone to advance reservation systems due to capacity restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.
“The White Mountains have a reputation of being a fun, safe destination, said Reardon. “So, it’s natural the businesses have worked hard to be safe in these unusual times.
“Our visitors are now able to enjoy attractions, lodges, campgrounds, restaurants and retailers,” said Reardon. “They’ve had their reopening plans approved by the state commission, installed appropriate protocols and have trained staff specifically on virus avoidance and additional customer safety.”
Most outdoor attractions opened in June, including Alpine Adventures, the Flume Gorge, Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves, Polar Caves Park and the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Also open are Clark’s Bears, Cranmore Mountain Resort, the Whales Tale Waterpark, Santa’s Village, Loon Mountain and the scenic trains including the Conway Scenic Railroad, Hobo Railroad and the Mt. Washington Cog Railway.
Not to mention, opening up for the season a little later in July are Story Land, Attitash Mountain Resort, Wildcat Mountain and Cannon Mountain.
Updates can be found at visitwhitemountains.com.
Colleen Mainville, public information specialist for the White Mountain National Forest, said while forest trails are open, they urge one and all to follow safe social distancing practices and CDC guidelines.
“The White Mountain National Forest is public land that is open to everyone, no matter where their residence is. In New Hampshire, we feel it’s in our ‘backyard,’ and it is — but it is open to everyone. It is a national forest. As always,we want people to be safe, and to be aware of all guidelines,” said Mainville.
She said the message remains the same as always concerning safe hiking practices: beware of bears, especially in terms of packing food safely at camping areas out of their reach; plan ahead and hike safe. For updates, go to fs.usda.gov/whitemountain.
While Conway Scenic Railroad is welcoming back visitors, not all North Conway Village attractions are open. The Mount Washington Observatory’s Weather Discovery Center, the Mount Washington Valley Children’s Museum and the New England Ski Museum’s Eastern Slope Branch remain closed.
The latter features public bathrooms that also are closed, as are the North Conway Community Center’s, but the town has installed porta-potties at Schouler Park and First Bridge in North Conway and Davis Park in Conway.
Local business leaders agreed that it will be interesting to see what impact the lack of formalized Fourth activities will have on overall business.
Wally Campbell, executive director of the Valley Originals, a group of 25 independently owned restaurants, said all but three of the group’s members have reopened.
He said staffing remains a problem for many establishments, due to the unanticipated impacts of the extra $600 a week in addition to state unemployment checks under the federal Payroll Protection Program.
Still, restaurants are coping by offering outdoor dining, a few with limited entertainment, and offering indoor dining with the required 6-foot distance spacing. The PPP program expires at the end of this month, which will help but combined with the cutback of the J-1 foreign worker program by the Trump administration, it has been tough to get full staffs along with the uncertainties caused by the pandemic on the business climate, it has been tough, but restaurateurs are improvising, Campbell said.
Retailers are cautiously optimistic heading into the holiday weekend and summer.
“It’s a toss-up with no events to see what will happen,” said Ray Boutin, general manager of Zeb’s General Store of North Conway Village, which like all stores, has implemented safe social distancing practices, removed some counters to add more free space inside and set up directional markers on the floor to guide foot traffic in the store.
“I think it will be a successful weekend with a lot of people coming to look for something to do but as for it being a normal Fourth in terms of business, it will be anybody’s guess,” said Boutin, who said the store reopened May 11 after the mid-March shutdown caused by the pandemic.
Dot Seybold, Settlers Green general manager, said her complex is fortunate to have outdoor courtyards that help with complying with state distancing guidelines.
Settlers Green has several activities planned for the holiday weekend, with sidewalk sales July 4 and 5, and live music featuring the Riley Parkhurst Duo July 4 from 1-3 p.m. “on the green” near Trails End Ice Cream. There is also plenty of al fresco dining.
For more, go to settlersgreen.com.
“I think it has been amazing for our retailers to get open when you think of where we’ve come from over the past few months,” said Seybold this week.
“They were able to get their merchandise after being closed for months when they were unable to get shipments. Now, they are getting their items and they have instituted the protocol required or recommended by the CDC and the state — and they have been able to do it all without a full staff in many cases.”
She said she expects the weekend to be busy but said it was unfortunate the valley will not be seeing Canadian visitors due to pandemic restrictions.
Seybold appeared before Conway selectmen last month and requested their OK to allow stores to offer outdoor shopping, much as the town did to enable restaurants to offer outside dining via permit.
Selectmen approved the concept, with Conway Town Manager Tom Holmes saying, “Selectmen were very receptive to the outdoor retail proposal. The only caveat I made was that the outdoor display has to be next to the store and not set up throughout the complex on the sidewalk like a flea market. Also, if the tent is larger than 10 feet by 10-feet, it has to under state law get the OK of the fire chief. But I am very glad that Dot brought this idea to us.”
As for the outdoor dining permit process instituted by the town and processed by John Eastman at the Conway Parks and Recreation Department, Holmes said that process has gone “smoothly,” saying, “I believe we had 16 restaurants do the outdoor dining. We have had no complaints.”
Outdoor options range from open-air tent seating to picnic tables on the grass to socially distanced tables on decks.
As for what to expect this weekend (and for the summer season), Holmes echoed others interviewed this week, who urged visitors and residents alike to be receptive to CDC and state protocols.
“Our economic engine is based on tourism; I don’t see any way around it,” said Holmes. “What we ask of visitors is that they please understand that the people who live here are nervous of people coming up from the (COVID-19) hot spots. It’s not hatred (of residents toward visitors); it’s fear — as long as they understand that and everyone is sensitive to one other’s needs and emotions, I think we will get through the summer OK.”
This will be Conway Police Lt. Chris Mattei’s 16th year of working on July 4. He is not sure what it will be like, but it will be different.
“It’s hard to predict how this year’s Independence Day will play out,” agreed Mattei this week, noting that the CPD usually sees the Fourth as a day when all staff work at some point of the holiday, especially at night when the town traditionally presents its festivities in North Conway’s Schouler Park.
“This year, we will do the normal day, evening and night shifts, but we will be adding a few officers,” he said.
He reminded one and all that Conway’s town ordinance does not permit private fireworks.
“Although they are legal in New Hampshire, I would like to remind everyone they are not authorized in Conway. Even when we have our annual Fourth fireworks here, we do get complaints of private fireworks and we do respond and let people know of the ordinance and that they have to cease and desist,” said Mattei.
They are also not allowed in the White Mountain National Forest, Mainville underscored.
Other towns, however, like Bartlett, Jackson and Madison, have no restrictions.
Chris Vernon of North Country Fireworks in Tamworth said on Monday that it had already been a blockbuster of a week in terms of sales.
“I had a great trepidation going into this week because I didn’t know much to order. But,” he said, “it’s gone ... ballistic!
“People are buying a lot of big stuff. I think with towns not doing fireworks shows, people are wanting to do their own thing,” said Vernon, noting that he has masks at the front of the store for customers who don’t have their own. In order to comply with state regulations, he also limits the number of people in the store to two at a time, uses plexiglass shields at the checkout counter and has hand sanitizer available.
They also have a chart posted inside showing the New Hampshire towns that allow fireworks and those that don’t.
“We’ve been shipping a lot of orders down state. It’s been crazy,” said Vernon.
“I think people are just so sick of being stuck inside due to the COVID that now they want to throw a party.”
Happy safe 244th, America.