Omicron Forcing Cancellation Of First Night North Gathering

A sign outside Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury notes First Night North on Dec. 31, 2019. The plan to return to in-person celebration of First Night in St. Johnsbury after a virtual-only presentation last year was canceled due to a surge in COVID transmission. (File Photo by Amy Ash Nixon)

Catamount Arts announced Thursday after a conversation with representatives from local healthcare organizations that First Night North will not proceed as planned. Executive Director Jody Fried spoke with officials from Northern Counties Health Care and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, and while hearts were heavy, the decision was unanimous and unambiguous. Live in-person performances of this scale are not safe at this time.

“The omicron variant is so contagious and is moving so quickly,” said Fried, “that we need to act with an abundance of caution. In the case of First Night, that means cancelling the in-person event and exploring a last-minute pivot to a virtual alternative. More on that soon.”

First Night North typically attracts thousands of revelers, which could pose a significant risk to the community. If proceeding with the in-person event proved to be a mistake, ramifications could be swift and widespread. First Night North takes place in a dozen host venues, including local schools, and the medical community is already under tremendous pressure. “There are far too many players involved,” Fried said, “to take a risk this size. It would simply be irresponsible.”

Community partners, though equally broken-hearted, are in steadfast agreement.

“The health and safety of our community must be our top priority,” stated Michael Costa, CEO of Northern Counties Health Care. “We support Catamount Arts in cancelling this year’s First Night North, so everyone can enjoy celebrations like this for years to come. I applaud the team at Catamount Arts for making a courageous decision, despite the obvious disappointment. We encourage everyone to get vaccinated and to do what you can to stay safe this holiday season.”

“We’re grateful to the leadership at Catamount Arts for making this difficult decision to protect the community,” added St. Johnsbury Academy Headmaster Sharon Howell. “Given the timing of the rise in omicron cases in our area, and the popularity of the First Night North celebration, it is a responsible choice.”

“As hard as we know this was, the St. Johnsbury School stands firmly behind the leadership of Catamount Arts in their decision to cancel First Night North,” stated Jeremy Ross, Co-Principal at St. Johnsbury School. “We all need to continue to focus on keeping our community safe and believe that this decision will help keep our community healthy, our school open and our students in their classrooms.”

Shawn Tester, CEO of NVRH, added, “These are difficult decisions; I appreciate that the leadership of Catamount Arts has always taken a safety-first approach throughout the pandemic. I know the decision to cancel First Night North has not been taken lightly and given the rapidly growing threat of the omicron variant, we fully support it. Our local health system is already under tremendous strain and would hate to see such a special event be a factor in rising local cases.”

“It really takes a village to pull off this event,” Fried says. “We’re overwhelmed with gratitude for our sponsoring partners, the businesses, organizations, host venues, performers, volunteers, food vendors, everyone who helps us put this together year after year. But that’s the very community we endanger if we proceed as planned.”

The announcement is expected to generate a flurry of questions, and First Night North organizers and community partners are doing their best to provide answers as quickly as possible. Catamount Arts has earned statewide recognition for its pandemic safety protocols and adaptive programming since the start of COVID-19, and hopes to provide safe alternative New Year’s options.

Last year, First Night North was broadcast on cable access television thanks to a collaboration with Kingdom Access Television but that took considerable preparation and far more work than organizers can pull off in less than 10 days’ time.

“We want our artists to have secure paying gigs, safe gigs,” Fried said, “and we want our community to have safe, family-friendly celebrations, celebrations we can all enjoy together. We absolutely cannot do that in person this year, but we’re brainstorming. Don’t give up on us yet.”

“At the end of the day, this remains a powerful, encouraging testament to our community,” Fried said. “First Night is a collaboration among the creative sector, businesses, schools, town officials, healthcare organizations, first responders and hundreds of individuals who all work endlessly to celebrate this place we call home on New Year’s Eve. We’re all in this together.”

Community members can expect further updates, including what to do if you’ve already purchased a First Night North admission wristband, in the coming days. The All Wheel for the Arts Jeep Raffle drawing will still take place on December 31st as scheduled. The drawing will be held online rather than in person.

The submission was provided by Catamount Arts.

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