When the COVID-19 pandemic ground Florida and the world to a halt in 2020, the isolation and cancellations left people with a lot of free time.
Some learned to bake sourdough loaves. Others greened up their green thumbs.
Suncoast Charities for Children Executive Director Lucy Nicandri and her team used the time to reevaluate the annual Sarasota Powerboat Grand Prix Race.
The result is Suncoast Summerfest, an 11-day celebration that started June 23 featuring events across Sarasota, including the powerboat grand prix, block party, fishing tournament, barbecue, parade and, of course, fireworks by the bay. Events are planned through this holiday weekend.
Suncoast Summerfest isn’t the only celebration in the Sarasota-Bradenton area that will be restoring a sense of normalcy to celebrations of America’s 245th birthday. Event organizers around the region have had their hands full planning ways to bring people together after a year spent apart.
The focus was on bringing back traditional events, but in many cases — such as Summerfest — there is a twist here and an upgrade there.
Siesta Key’s popular fireworks show over the Gulf of Mexico is back, as is bayfront Sarasota’s show, this year preceded by a parade down Mound Street and Bayfront Drive.
“This Independence Day, we are going to come together once again to celebrate our community, honor our heroes and commemorate our nation’s birth after a very challenging time for our community and our country,” Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody said in a statement.
Nicandri said part of the idea behind Suncoast Summerfest was celebrating a return to the idea of community congregation by making the festival accessible to people from every part of Sarasota. That meant holding events in different parts of town — a barbecue in Newtown, a stroll in Southside Village.
“Not everything is right downtown on Main Street,” Nicandri said. “You’re reaching out in the community to engage the entire community.”
Nicandri said one of the biggest differences between planning events this summer compared to previous years is the expected crowds. She said Suncoast Charities for Children raised a record $250,000 at the Thunder By the Bay motorcycle festival, and she expects that pent-up demand for events will continue through the summer. Larger crowds mean extra accommodations, such as increased parking options and security, could be necessary.
In early June, Longboat Key commissioners decided to resume the town’s annual Freedom Fest celebration and parade after a year on the sidelines.
“This is a big deal, even though it’s a small hometown parade, but I would like to honor our people,” Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren said. “I’ve got to make sure (the Rotary Club) will do the Hot Diggity Dog Contest now that we’ve been approved.
“The kids and the dogs are the whole reason to do it.”
Town Manager Tom Harmer said holding Freedom Fest in 2021 signals a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s a big deal,” Harmer said. “It’s a super short parade, but it’s a fun parade. Our residents really come out and enjoy it.”
Harmer said the dog costume contest is a favorite among Longboaters.
“You still want to be careful and thoughtful and considerate of others, but we’re starting now to see more events,” Harmer said. “You’re going to see parades and those types of things.”
Fire Chief Paul Dezzi is set to serve as one of the Freedom Fest’s three grand marshals.
Loefgren is planning to pick the other two grand marshals: someone who works in health care and someone from the Publix store at the Shoppes of Bay Isles.
Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates President and CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler said SANCA decided not to include Fireworks On the Lake in its budget this year because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. Herrera-Mishler said it wasn’t until Sunset Automotive Group stepped in to sponsor the event at Nathan Benderson Park that SANCA knew it could move forward.
SANCA Chief Operating Officer Stephen Rodriguez said this year’s event will be a hybrid of pre-pandemic editions and the 2020 version. He said the park received “overwhelming” positive responses to its drive-in event last year, so designated parking will remain for those who want to buy a ticket and watch the fireworks from their cars. A 4-mile run around the lake will precede the pyrotechnics.
Additionally, the fireworks will be broadcast on local TV for the second straight year. They were broadcast last year because of the attendance restrictions that were in place.
On the other hand, this year’s celebration will bring the return of live music, food, a 4-mile race and the kids zone, “a fun, safe and controlled environment for families to bring their children to play games and enjoy activities,” Rodriguez said.
“The most exciting thing was when I realized that we would be able to gather the community back together after being forced apart for so long, celebrating our nation’s birth together,” Herrera-Mishler said.
“I hope that this fun, family-friendly event helps to rekindle our patriotism and sense of unity with hope for the future.”