The Rogersville Main Street Program announced on Oct. 14 that the annual downtown Trunk or Treat event has been cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

“Trunk or Treat has become so popular in downtown with hundreds of children participating we could just not see a way to provide a safe environment due to the COVID-19 situation,” the RMSP announced. “We will miss seeing the scary and cool costumes and not just from the little ones, parents and our business owners always surprise us with their creative costume ideas. Please have a safe Halloween.”

This would have been the 14th consecutive year for Trunk or Treat, as it began in 2007.

The RMSP has faced an onslaught of comments from angry citizens asking why Trunk or Treat was cancelled, yet Heritage Days was held this year despite COVID-19.

Nancy Barker, Director of Rogersville/Hawkins County Chamber of Commerce, spoke with the Review on Thursday morning to explain the decision to cancel the event.

“The whole purpose of Trunk or Treat was to provide a safe Halloween for children,” Barker said. “We can’t provide a safe Halloween for children during this pandemic, so it was in the best interest of the community and our volunteers. We looked at it really hard, because this was not an easy decision to make.”

“There’s no comparison”

“There’s no comparison between Trunk or Treat and Heritage Days,” Barker said. “At Trunk or Treat, you’re trying to funnel 2,300 to 3,000 children, plus the three or four adults they each have with them, down Main Street within a three-hour period.”

She explained that there is simply no way to maintain safe social distancing practices with this many people in one place at one time.

“We might be able to social distance them while the actual event is going on, but they start lining up sometimes by 2 p.m. for an event that starts at 5 p.m.,” Barker said. “In the past, we’ve had people lined up as far back as Broome Funeral Home. There’s no way that we could keep them separated and keep them safe. The group that is just lined up before they enter the event, we have no control over whatsoever.”

She also noted that, since Halloween falls on a Saturday this year, she expected that children and their families would have begun lining up even earlier this year and more people than usual might have participated.

In the past, the event has seen between 2,300 and 3,000 children. Barker explained that each child brings between one and three adults with them. So, counting participants alone, this event could have brought around 6,000 people to downtown.

In addition, there are usually around 50 cars downtown to give out candy. Each car held between three to six people. This could mean another 150 to 300 people downtown.

“We’ve looked at every way that we could,” Barker said. “There was no way we could keep people distanced or maintain hygiene of any kind. It just takes one person who has COVID-19 in a crowd that size, and look how many people you’ve spread it to.”

She also noted the fact that CHS recently was put back to virtual learning the week before fall break due to a large COVID-19 outbreak there.

“We also use our youth group, Heritage Lights, as volunteers for this event,” Barker said. “As people are well aware, Cherokee has had an episode of COVID-19. We just can’t run the program without volunteers.”

She added, “Many people have said, ‘the town did this, the town did that.’ The town doesn’t put these events on. These are nonprofit organizations that are trying to better the community.”

“We took precautions at Heritage Days”

“At Heritage Days, you have people coming through town over a three-day period, as opposed to a three-hour period with Trunk or Treat,” Barker said. “Every precaution was taken at Heritage Days this year. The tents were spaced further apart. We cut down on the food booths and only had them on one side of the street this year. We also had hygiene stations set up all through the event.”

Barker also noted that it was two different boards making decisions about Heritage Days versus Trunk or Treat.

“Heritage Days is run by the Rogersville Heritage Association, which is one non-profit organization,” she said. “They have their own board. The Main Street Program is a non-profit organization that has its own board. The Rogersville Chamber of Commerce is also a non-profit organization that has its own board—all of these are separate boards. Trunk or Treat is run through the Main Street Board. It was a unanimous decision among the Main Street Board that there was no way we could keep people safe at the event this year.”

She also noted that Heritage Days is an “economic driver” for the town.

“Whether or not to have Heritage Days this year was probably one of the hardest decisions the Heritage Association has had to make,” Barker said. “Actually, our businesses needed Heritage Days because they have suffered through the pandemic. They were shut down for two months. This was an opportunity for them to be able to recoup just a little bit of income. They all have families to feed, too. I can almost guarantee that the Heritage Association didn’t make any money on Heritage Days this year, between the pandemic and the rain.”

She added, “For our downtown businesses, Heritage Days is some of their biggest days of the year.”

She told the Review that the same rationale is applied to the Cruise-Ins that the Chamber of Commerce hosts.

“We don’t make any money off the Cruise-Ins,” Barker said. “Actually, we go in the hole for them. The whole purpose of them is, in the summer months when business is slow, is to provide one night a month from May to October for those businesses to have a good night.”