SALT LAKE CITY — The decision that Utah’s biggest Fourth of July celebration, the Stadium of Fire show at Brigham Young University’s LaVell Edwards Stadium, would be held this year was made back in January even as COVID-19 cases were spiking in the state.

“The marching orders were, ‘We’re going to have a festival this year. We don’t know what level it’s going to be or how big or small, but we’re having a festival celebrating as many things as we can this year like we’ve done in the past,’” said Jim Evans, executive director of America’s Freedom Festival, which produces the Stadium of Fire.

In July 2020, what would have been the 40th anniversary of the annual patriotic show created by a pair of Osmond brothers was canceled and instead, fireworks were set off simultaneously at three locations so Utah Valley residents could watch safely from their cars or homes instead of gathering at the BYU stadium.

Christian and McKenzie Holden watch the fireworks during Stadium of Fire at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on July 4, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“There were a lot of disappointed families last year who make this part of their tradition,” Evans said. “This would help to let people know that we’re one large step forward to getting back toward normal, what they used to do. Because by having some of these events, it lets them know, hey, we really do see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Just what this show will look like remains to be seen. Rascal Flatts, the country band lined up last year isn’t an option, Evans said, so organizers are working to line up another act that fits with “traditional American values of God, family, freedom and country.”

Also yet to be determined is how many seats in the massive BYU stadium can be filled for the event being held July 3, since the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday, as well as what restrictions there may be on ticket holders.

“Here in Utah County, they follow the state guidelines in terms of gatherings. We’re watching the guidelines as we transition, but are optimistic, with the things the governor said, that by July 4, things are kind of trending good,” Evans said. “So we’re making plans and if we have to scale down a little bit, we’re having contingencies.”

Annjanette Kemp, left, Ora Hegerhorst and Walt Hegerhorst watch a marching band pass by during the Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City on July 24, 2019. Ora Hegerhorst has been attending the parade for over 50 years. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Will Utahns feel ‘a little iffy going out’ after so long?

Gov. Spencer Cox memorably described recently how not only won’t he be wearing a mask by the Fourth of July, he wants to “blow them up” in a fireworks display or just set them ablaze, part of his promise to Utahns that “there is an end in sight” to the pandemic.

Lawmakers took that further, passing legislation lifting the statewide mask mandate on April 10, and other restrictions related to slowing the spread of the virus once enough vaccine has been delivered to the state to inoculate 70% of Utah adults, about 1.63 million doses, and case counts and hospitalization rates stay low.

Not everyone is as optimistic that the end date of the pandemic can be predicted.

“What July looks like largely depends on vaccine supply and administration, and also what we do until we get to that 70%,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn. “We still can have a lot of cases if we start letting down our guard, and that would require us to then go through this all again to drop the cases.”

Dunn, the state’s top public health official throughout the pandemic, said “vaccines can’t do that overnight. It would take several months.” Even as more vaccines are available, it still takes at least two weeks after getting the final shot before someone can be considered fully immunized.

Ending restrictions put into place to slow the spread of the virus and relying solely on vaccinations, now available only to adults, “puts us at a disadvantage,” Dunn said, predicting it could be a year from now before Utah reaches the 70% threshold for so-called herd immunity against the virus, since nearly 30% of the population is under 18.

“But that doesn’t mean that we can’t go back to ‘more normal life’ before then,” she said. By July, Dunn said there’s likely not going to be any COVID-19-related public health mandates in place so it will be up to Utahns to decide what they believe is safe for them.

Don’t ‘indulge in high-risk behavior’ even after getting COVID-19 vaccine, doctor warns
Is not wearing masks after mandate ends a ‘recipe for increased cases’ of COVID-19?

For Dunn, that means keeping her children away from large celebrations, including on the Fourth of July, and continuing to wear masks at least until the fall.

Public health recommendations for July are yet to come, but Dunn said if there continues to be several hundred new coronavirus cases a day, she “definitely would still recommend mask-wearing and physical distancing and avoiding large gatherings.” If that number drops to around 50, Utahns “can be more comfortable going to large gatherings.”

A lot of people may “feel a little iffy going out because we haven’t done it in so long,” Dunn said, but by July, “small gatherings are going to be fine as we already know. My guess is large public gatherings are going to happen no matter what, and if somebody feels comfortable going to them, then they’re going to be able to do so.”

President Joe Biden has also talked about what Fourth of July celebrations will look like this year as the number of Americans getting vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to climb. But unlike Utah’s GOP leaders, the Democratic president tried to temper expectations.

“If we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4th, there is a good chance you, your family and friends can get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said in a prime-time address to the nation last week.

The president didn’t talk about parades or other large holiday events. He said continued vigilance against COVID-19 “will make this Independence Day truly special — where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”

The White House said in a fact sheet about the address that as July 4 nears, additional public health guidance will be provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people who are vaccinated “as they travel, participate in small gatherings, and go to work and houses of worship.“

Dr. Todd Vento, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases doctor, told reporters he believes the president was talking about the Fourth of July to “put a point of hope out there, something to shoot for” with the caveat that it’s too soon to ease public health measures.

“He put enough caution there. I think that’s different than saying, ‘Oh, we will on the Fourth of July burn our masks and start getting together,’” Vento said, given the new and potentially more lethal variants emerging around the world.

“People are tired of hearing about what this virus is doing now. But guess what? That’s what the virus is doing.”

What could make a more normal Independence Day holiday possible is if Utahns get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on a mass scale, the doctor said.

“I think if we have that, we can get there in the summer,” Vento said. “And that’s what we’re all shooting for.”

People watch a fireworks show from Rock Canyon Park in Provo on Saturday, July 4, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

July events back on the calendar

What’s billed as the biggest little Fourth of July in Utah is a go for 2021 after the annual celebration featuring a parade and fireworks show that attracts thousands of people from all over to Magna was canceled last year due to COVID-19, the township’s administrator, Greg Schulz, said.

“We waited until the last possible moment to do it. It was very hard on the community to lose the event. Not that everyone wasn’t resigned to that happening, but we tried to find any way possible to do it,” he said. “For a lot of the bars along Main Street, that’s Christmas. It’s the only way to put it. They lost a very significant revenue stream.”

Schulz said Magna is counting on “pent-up desires” of residents for the celebration to encourage them to be vaccinated against COVID-19 so “you don’t get as paranoid and as worried about getting people sick because everybody decided to come together and have some fun. We don’t want to create a mass spreader event.”

He said he hopes by July, there won’t be a need to limit paradegoers or force volunteers to become “mask police” along the route.

Huntsville Mayor Jim Truett said the Weber County town is gearing up for what may be a scaled-back Independence Day celebration after canceling all of last year’s events. Truett said what’s most meaningful to the town that sent many of its young men to fight in World War II is still on the schedule.

So while the potluck breakfast in the park and the fun run may not be held, there will still be an early morning flag-raising ceremony, parade, family games, patriotic program, a flyover by Hill Air Force Base jets and, of course, fireworks.

“I think for sure we can count on a nice Fourth of July in Huntsville,” the mayor said. “We will keep those things going that really make us what we are.”

Moriah Carter plays the tuba with the West Jordan High School marching band in the Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City on July 24, 2019. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Preparations are underway for the Days of ’47 — including a July 23 parade through downtown Salt Lake City set to be televised on KSL-TV and the Deseret News Marathon — but the final decision hasn’t been made on whether to go ahead with the annual celebration of Utah’s pioneer heritage that was postponed last year.

“We’ll know on May 1 for sure. We’re proceeding as if we can have all of our events. But much like last year, it depends on where COVID sits. So we’re in the 60-40 range right now. We think it’s a bit more likely that we’ll do it than not,” Days of ’47 public affairs chairman Greg James said. “We’d like to proceed but we’d like to be cautious.”

James said the intent is to hold the events as they were planned for last year, with the same floats that were being built for the 2020 parade when the postponement came. The Days of ’47 royalty pageant is being held virtually this year, he said.

Being able to bring back the Days of ’47 would be “a reminder of our heritage. It reminds us that there is hope and that the principles of the pioneers, tenacity and faith and vision and hard work are rewarded,” James said, adding that after a year of COVID-19, it will demonstrate “life is purposeful.”

Evans said that when the decision was made in January to move forward with the Stadium of Fire, no one knew what to expect. COVID-19 was raging in Utah and the rest of the country, following a holiday season where gatherings of far-flung families and friends helped the virus spread.

“With the values we support, we’re optimistic. Certainly, right now, it’s probably as good as I could hope for at this point,” said Evans, executive director of the organization that produces the Stadium of Fire, America’s Freedom Festival.

Utahns share that optimism, he said.

“They’re ready,” Evans said. “They’re ready. They want to celebrate. And what greater event than to celebrate the freedoms that we have as a country. Are we perfect? No. But do we live in a beautiful land with wonderful freedoms and blessings that we have? Absolutely.”

Attendees light up their cellphones during Stadium of Fire at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, July 4, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News