Dr. Colleen Healy couldn’t believe it when she got the call asking whether she would serve as a grand marshal of the Longboat Key Freedom Festival.
“I feel like the ‘Grand Poobah,’ ” Healy said of her selection leading the island’s Fourth of July festivities.
Healy, Fire Chief Paul Dezzi and Bay Isles Publix store manager Willie McLaughlin will serve as the three grand marshals, all representing the town's front-line workers.
“I feel very honored to be selected,” Healy said. “It’s touching, and it feels special. I really appreciate it.”
Healy said she has operated out of her cardiology office on 5650 Gulf of Mexico Drive for the last 20 years.
“Throughout the pandemic, even some of my colleagues in town, other cardiologists, they did tele-visits almost for a year,” Healy said. “We never shut our doors, ever. Not one time. We never shut down for COVID.”
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of the 2020 Freedom Fest. The return of the event will be a stark contrast from last year’s Fourth of July when town leaders opted to close public beach parking ahead of the holiday weekend to minimize gathering crowds.
Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren said she felt it was necessary for the town’s 2021 Independence Day celebration to honor health care workers, first responders and others critical to Longboat's livelihood.
“It’s an honor,” Loefgren said. “People always call asking, ‘who is the grand marshal?’ ”
Dezzi said Loefgren asked him to serve as a grand marshal on June 7 when town commissioners voted to waive the Chamber’s $100 permit fee for the Freedom Festival.
“I thought at first, ‘why is she asking me because, I mean, there are so many people out here on the island that they’ve chosen before?’” Dezzi said. “But, [it’s] an honor. I thought it was very nice of her to ask.”
Dezzi, Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department personnel and first responders took several precautions throughout the pandemic.
“This is something that the citizens really enjoy,” Dezzi said. “They wait all year long. I just think it’s something that gets people outside. Something different for them. I think a lot of people missed that this past year, being outside and being part of the parade and the events.”
McLaughlin said it was an honor the Chamber even considered him.
“I can tell you it’s a first. It’s never happened,” McLaughlin said. “I know how important the parade is to this community, so it was an honor.”
McLaughlin is set to march in the parade with several other Publix employees, including Tyler Albrecht, Joey Boucher, Aaron Norden, Ian Alexander, Jerry Smith, Eddie Soto, Tina Nohmer and Kevin Murray.
McLaughlin said he typically works during the Fourth of July.
“Anytime there’s the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, any of those beach cookout celebrations, the store is extremely busy,” McLaughlin said.
The Publix Super Market at Shoppes of Bay Isles will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Independence Day
Starting in February, the Publix at the Shoppes of Bay Isles began serving as the town’s only permanent vaccine site. The store also implemented a variety of safety precautions at the start of the pandemic like curbside pickup, requiring masks for months and installing Plexiglass barriers.
This year’s Freedom Festival theme is “Honoring Our Hometown Heroes.”