Nights of Lights will go on, but without usual kick-off gathering

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St. Augustine’s annual Nights of Lights will return this year, though with a few changes to keep visitors safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thursday, Sept. 24, the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce Tourism & Hospitality Council and Historic St. Augustine Area Council hosted a virtual discussion on the topic with local tourism and municipal leaders.

“We all have to work together to make the holiday season the best ever,” said St. Augustine City Manager John Regan.

It’s a tall order at a time when many businesses are struggling to rebound from an enforced shutdown last spring and social distancing that limits the volume of customers.

“I’ve spoken with as many as 20 businesses to really understand where people are at and what their needs are,” Regan said.

One thing is certain: an event like Nights of Lights draws countless visitors to the Nation’s Oldest City, which is critical to the financial well-being of retail shops and eateries.

“It’s very important that we participate and make this a very, very big and exciting event,” said Richard Goldman, president and CEO of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. He pointed out that Nights of Lights has shown its value in helping local business to come back following recent hurricanes.

Economics aside, there is another reason to turn on those 3 million tiny lights this year.

“So many residents have talked to me about the importance from an emotional perspective of having a very traditional Christmas season, to bring back joy, to just celebrate,” said Regan. “I think we’re all ready for that on so many levels.”

The Nights of Lights will be a week longer this year, running from Nov. 14 through Jan. 31. And the city’s lighting program will be expanded, as well, with improvements, though Regan declined to offer any spoilers.

In addition, Melissa Wissel, St. Augustine manager of communications, encouraged businesses to try some new things to attract visitor’s attention, such as special window displays.

In perhaps the biggest change this year, the annual Light Up! Night has been cancelled. This event crowds about 7,000 people into the area of the Plaza de la Constitucion to witness the ceremonial flipping of the switch.

Asked how the event will kick off without Light Up! Night, Regan said the city was open to suggestions.

Also cancelled is the shuttle that brings visitors into town from outside parking areas. The city manager has been given the authority to open Francis Field to parking should there be a need and a demand.

Meanwhile, St. Augustine Beach intends to hold its annual Surf Illumination event, according to the island city’s communications and events coordinator, Melinda Conlon. However, the annual New Year’s Eve Beach Blast-Off has been cancelled.

Asked if Nights of Lights will attract as many visitors this year, Regan could only express hope. Currently, capacity at the city’s parking garage is down from recent years. Whether that indicates a trend that will continue into the holiday season “remains to be seen,” Regan said.

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