The novel coronavirus did more than kill a third of a million Americans and freeze major swaths of the business and education worlds. By turning large gatherings into potentially virulent spreaders of disease, it also turned 2020 into the year the fun died — in the Napa Valley as across the nation and globe.
The Napa Valley Expo stood empty in late May, when tens of thousands of music fans had been expected to pack the fairground for the BottleRock festival. Not a note was played of a concert series planned for the Oxbow Commons, the summertime Porchfest music crawl was replaced by internet video feeds from bedrooms, and all that survived of the Town & Country Fair in August was an online livestock auction with cattle and goats dropped off by truck a few days later.
Even the annual rituals of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons were not immune to the necessity of social distancing to protect as many people from COVID-19’s spread as possible. Local customs from parades to tree lightings to the Turkey Chase charity run all were put on hiatus, amid a late-year surge in viral infections, while organizers sometimes scrambled to create substitutes to help people celebrate as best as they could while keeping their distance.
Despite promising news of two coronavirus vaccines hitting the market, no immediate relief from the pandemic appeared in sight as 2021 neared, and thus no clear path back to celebrations of hundreds, much less tens of thousands. As early as October, the city of Napa pushed the Lighted Arts Festival scheduled for January back a year to 2022, and BottleRock organizers again delayed their festival — already rescheduled to May 2021 — back to early September.
As the first reports of people falling ill from a mysterious new virus surfaced in the early months of the year — first in China, then in Italy and Spain and aboard cruise ships — the news seemed to pose little threat, at first, to the wine country’s entertainments. But on March 9, the Taste of Yountville food and wine showcase became one of the first local social events to be called off, followed over the coming days by cancellations of Yountville Live, the Napa women’s half marathon and various theater productions.
The shutdown of daily life picked up speed as Bay Area counties, followed by the rest of California, ordered the closing of schools, arenas and non-essential businesses as COVID-19 proliferated with no vaccine in sight. Napa County announced its own stay-at-home order March 19, closing off any hopes of staging events where throngs might gather.
Parades slipped off local calendars over the ensuing months, leaving Napa streets bereft of floats on the Fourth of July and of Santa Claus on the late-November date of the Christmas parade. Calistoga canceled its own holiday kickoff, the Lighted Tractor Parade, after earlier calling off its annual Homecoming.
Although the possibility of losing Christmastime celebrations emerged as early as April, “we wanted to wait till the last minute to cancel them from a planning standpoint, and now we’re at that point,” said Craig Smith, executive director of the Downtown Napa Association that stages the parade. “We have to be aware of people’s safety first and foremost.”
As COVID-19 continued rippling through the Napa Valley, the new necessity of social distancing led to numerous workarounds to let people gather, celebrate or entertain themselves in some fashion — often on four wheels.
Replacing children’s Easter-egg hunts in April were a driving tour of wine barrels painted in colorful egg-like patterns and placed around St. Helena, and a one-bunny tour of Napa streets by a former firefighter donning a furry, long-eared costume and greeting families from the back of a slow-moving pickup truck. July Fourth fireworks were canceled throughout the county, and a virtual showcase of Napa neighborhoods, businesses and people replaced the city’s parade.
Performing stages also went dark at Blue Note Napa, the Uptown Theater, the Lincoln Theater and other live music venues. Audiences never got to attend the Oxbow RiverStage concerts, which would have run from June to October and brought Gary Clark Jr., John Fogerty and other luminaries to downtown Napa. Organizers later announced the rescheduling of many of the planned performances to the summer of 2021.
The silence extended into the summer and then the fall, for music gatherings of both the name-brand and homespun varieties. BottleRock’s production team Latitude 38, after first pushing back their three-day concert slate from May to October, followed the lead of other major pop festivals and delayed a return to 2021, as the prospect of safely gathering 30,000 spectators a day into the Expo remained remote.
Rather than attracting 13,000 or more guests to the streets of Old Town Napa, Porchfest directors arranged for 11 musical acts to instead stream their performances live on the July day set aside for the festival.
“It’s a little weird because you don’t hear clapping or cheering or anything like that,” said singer-songwriter Shelby Lanterman about the virtual Porchfest, though she was gratified to have any sort of audience with public gatherings shut down. “I’m a little bummed we aren’t able to do the usual Porchfest but I’m excited to participate. Might be a little different today, but it’s still going to be fun.”
As performers and stage workers faced months with no work and no livelihood, a team of artists, promoters and club owners urged Congress to step in and lend aid to the live music industry. Two Congressional bills, the Restart Act and Save Our Stages Act, would create a loan program to sustain shuttered performing venues and authorize grants to venue owners, operators, producers and others to offset hardships caused by COVID-19.
“The arts are essential,” Ken Tesler, Blue Note Napa’s managing director, told the San Jose Mercury News in September. “And jobs are essential. Our workers have been some of the hardest-hit in this pandemic. A place for a community to gather and serve each other is essential — whether it is locals night to hang with friends after work or fundraisers for firemen. And the local economy is essential — and we are at its heart in downtown Napa.”
At least one event did not survive the turmoil of COVID-19.
Napa Valley Vintners last month pulled the plug on Auction Napa Valley, the annual wine auction launched in 1981 that had raised more than $200 million for local charities. With the cancellation of the June event due to the pandemic, the Vintners announced it would continue its fundraising in a new format yet to be chosen.
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HOWARD YUNE’S MOST MEMORABLE STORIES FROM 2020
Howard Yune's most memorable Napa Valley Register stories from 2020
For me, the most lasting memories of 2020 will inevitably revolve around the forces that overturned what we considered "normal" life until this year — the coronavirus pandemic, a historic season of wildfires, and anti-racism protests that played out in Napa as in numerous communities nationwide.
But as the year ends, I include as one of my five most memorable stories my account of Napa's Lighted Art of Festival back in January. It was a taste of fun and relaxation that now seems so long ago, but that we hope to reclaim again.
Those who lost their homes to the Hennessey Fire have begun returning to take up the task of starting over.
A of protests against police violence inspires advocates for sexual and racial minorities to join forces and demonstrate in Napa, together.
A slate of musicians kept the spirit of the Napa Porchfest alive with livestreamed performances on Sunday.
Unpredictable weather in the fall is prompting the NVUSD to shift school days.
Video, lasers and music are giving an artistic bend to Napa landmarks during the city's third Lighted Art Festival, which runs nightly through…
You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org