2020 has one last party to spoil

Big celebrations out as pandemic lingers like an unwanted guest

Friday, December 25, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 52
By Catherine Mayhew

New Year’s Eve is not a major holiday for everyone, at least in normal times. It will be this year.

It’s a concrete dividing line between a year of unimaginable suffering and sacrifice and a new year of promise. We have every reason to look ahead to 2021 with hope. Health care workers already are getting vaccinated against COVID-19, and indications are they should be available to all by the summer.

Meanwhile, New Year’s Eve will not look the same this year. There will be no municipal fireworks in Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga. In Music City, the note will not drop at midnight. Restaurants and bars will be at reduced capacity. And the tourists won’t be coming, at least not in the significant numbers they usually do.

Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation (NCVC), estimates hotels will be at 50% capacity and generate far less spending than the $26.5 million that visitors dropped last year.

Rob Mortensen, president and CEO of HospitalityTN, sees the same bleak picture. HospitalityTN represents the interests of Tennessee’s lodging, dining and tourism establishments and the related businesses involved in the hospitality and tourism industry.

“(Tourists) spend money on restaurants and they spend the night,” he says. “In Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, 30 years ago you went through there in the winter and there wasn’t a whole lot open.

“And then they thought of this great idea of having Winterfest and because of that there’s been a lot of revenue.

“In Nashville, that was kind of the idea about New Year’s Eve. It helped everyone during that lull period. That was a huge help when times were good. Now that times are bad, that lifesaver isn’t really there.”

I’ve had a lot of time to think. My priorities have changed. Making that last dollar is not as important as it used to be. My views on a lot of things have changed, I’d like to think for the better. I’ve read more, thought more, lived in the moment more and paid attention to the little things. It’s like we’ve been granted an intermission before our final act and have an opportunity to rewrite the script if we want to. I hope we can create a story worthy of a curtain call.
– Ron Montgomery of Boaz, Alabama, silver linings of the 2020 pandemic

And anyone thinking they’ll rent an Airbnb anywhere in the state and throw a big New Year’s Eve bash will have to think again. The rental company is way ahead of you. It has announced strict restrictions for New Year’s Eve bookings, making it harder for guests without a history of positive reviews to make local and last-minute reservations.

“We have carefully developed this New Year’s Eve initiative informed by [host] feedback along with a review of our data, systems and tools,” Airbnb states. “We believe this plan will help prevent large gatherings while supporting the type of safe, responsible travel that benefits guests, hosts and the neighborhoods they call home.”

OK, no big parties, no crowded restaurants or bars and no fireworks. But all those fireworks stands you pass on a routine year – how about picking up a few and setting them off at home?

Kevin Walters, the communications director representing the State of Tennessee’s Fire Marshal’s Office, wishes you wouldn’t.

“We’re urging consumers to take a moment, take a breath and consider problems they could create for themselves,” he says. “We want Tennesseans to follow the law and stay safe. We don’t want there to be any injuries or a fire that could result in a fatality.”

And with COVID-19 straining hospitals, health care workers would rather not have fireworks injuries adding to their burden.

Walters says 9,100 fireworks injuries were treated in emergency rooms in 2018, and about 45% of fireworks injuries are burns. Consumers who set off fireworks at home also face potential insurance liability issues.

In late summer, when my pandemic boredom hit a peak, I started writing a novel – a project I’ve thought about for years but have always put off. I thought to myself, I never would have expected that I could stay home for so many consecutive days, so perhaps I’m capable of more than I think. I try to hit a certain word count goal a few times a week and am now a hundred pages in. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll finish before the spring.
–Heather Iverson of Nashville, silver linings of the 2020 pandemic

Hey, but how about sparklers? Surely, they’re OK.

“People might think of sparklers as being similar to toys,” Walters says. “I want to change people’s thinking about that.

“Sparklers can burn as hot as 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. (Injury) can happen in a moment when your attention is distracted, and the next thing you know your child has a burn. We are probably more distracted this year than ever before. When you add distractions into the mix you’re upping the ante.

“There are safe ways to celebrate and we urge consumers to celebrate safely like never before,” he says.

The Nashville Convention and Visitor’s Corp. started planning its annual and highly successful Jack Daniel’s Music City Midnight: New Year’s Eve in Nashville in early July, not knowing what the fall and winter would bring.

What happened next is a good illustration of how many organizations that host and sponsor blockbuster events in Tennessee have had to readjust their thinking in unprecedented ways.

“Because I live with a glass half full, I thought wouldn’t it be nice if we could send 2020 out and kick off 2021 with a live event,” Spyridon recalls. “There was some false hope. The idea was we were going to transition from Keith Urban as our headliner to another A-lister. We started some conversations about who was available, but all of that was done with an eye toward we can’t make a decision until fall.

I entered a virtual running competition called the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee. The original goal was to run/walk a course across Tennessee that was about 635 miles. I ended up virtually crossing Tennessee 3.5 times, logging a total of 2,206.1 miles (all in the Hendersonville area) during the competition time frame - May 1 through Aug. 31, which was an average of 17.9 miles/day. I ended up 41st in the worldwide competition out of a field of almost 20,000 runners.
- Rick Murray of Hendersonville, silver linings of the 2020 pandemic

“A lot of that was contributed to the fact that in June we thought we might be able to do a July 4 event live. And as we saw the end of June come and cases spiked that told us to walk slowly.”

The NCVC didn’t decide to turn the live event into a virtual one until late fall. The New Year’s Eve show will now be televised and will feature indie rock band Moon Taxi and powerhouse trio The Shindellas. It will air from 10:30 p.m. to midnight on WTVF-NewsChannel 5. The show will include highlights from previous years and CNN will feature the countdown live.

“It’s been different,” Spyridon says. “The focus is on the quality of the broadcast and not the show itself. There’s a sense of obligation to our industry and our city that we give it a try. It’s a little more work and energy but giving it the effort is important.”

The NCVC also created a New Year’s Eve Box of Cheer that can be delivered to hotel rooms. It includes a craft cocktail mixer, a shot glass made by Jack Daniels, a guitar pick magnetic bottle opener for other celebratory beverages (it’s OK…you’re in a hotel room!) and locally made chocolates.

“Music City has consistently hosted hundreds of thousands of spectators to ring in the New Year, and while we are sad to ask the crowds to stay home, we are ecstatic about the opportunity to say goodbye to 2020,” said Spyridon in a press release announcing the change. “We hope everyone will tune in to enjoy the live music and the start of 2021. You can expect us to be back next year with the biggest show ever. We have some making up to do.”

And now, let’s look on the bright side. We’ve all become inventive in 2020 at changing course and finding our sparks of joy in things we still can. Just maybe in a different way.

In Nashville, the easiest place to start is the NCVC’s New Year’s Eve suggestion page. In Knoxville, Eventbrite has listings. Here are Chattanooga’s New Year’s Eve options.

This year was hard in many ways, but my kids have read more books than ever before, they’ve pursued hobbies they’ve never had time for before, they’re thriving in virtual school, they’ve learned to cook and we’ve all enjoyed spending more time together.
–Stephanie Miller of Nashville, silver linings of the 2020 pandemic

Restaurants and hotels throughout Tennessee are meticulous about maintaining safety standards but you must do your part by respecting whatever local rules are in place. Wear your mask. Maintain social distancing. And wash those germy hands.

Check your favorite restaurant or bar’s website to see what they’ve got planned for ringing in 2021 and the precautions you need to take to attend.

If you’re looking for a more low-key way to celebrate this year, look to local attractions and businesses to make New Year’s Eve special.

The holiday lights will still be glowing on New Year’s Eve at Cheekwood. You’ll need to buy a $26 ticket in advance for a timed entry between 5-10 p.m. The light display has been a hot ticket this year because it’s easy to socially distance outdoors and because it’s, well, always spectacular. To purchase tickets.

Even safer is the Jingle Beat at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway because you never leave your car. The two-mile driving course features a light, sound and sensory experience. Tickets are $45 plus an additional $3.85 fee and $4.52 sales tax. Masks are required when interacting with event staff, but are not required while inside your own vehicle. Reserve a ticket.

If this is the year you just want to stay home, treat yourself with artisanal ingredients from local purveyors. This year, in particular, they could use your support. The Bloomy Rind offers cheese boxes curated by professional cheesemongers. And the shop is donating 10% of all December cheese sales to The Nashville Food Project, which provides fresh, nutritious meals to those suffering from food insecurity.

If meat is your treat, consider the options at Bare Bones Butcher or Porter Road Butcher. Bare Bones can curate a complete charcuterie platter with side offerings including cheeses, craft honey and gourmet crackers. Both shops have a wide array of homemade sausages that would pair perfectly with soft pretzels and a flavorful mustard.

I rested. I realized how burned out I was and after I rested, I was nicer to my husband, read more books, started feeding the birds again and became creative in redoing things around my house. Now I like my house again.
- Bel Edmonson, Burke, Virginia, silver linings of the 2020 pandemic

In Knoxville you won’t do any better than the Shrimp Dock for savory seafood spreads. Or go all-out and order a low-country seafood boil with shrimp, andouille sausage, corn on the cob, red potatoes, lemons, whole garlic and spices. You can customize your boils with crawfish, king crab legs, mussels and clams.

And if an ooey gooey serving of cheese is your comfort food, stop by the Blue Fox Cheese Shop in Chattanooga for its Raclette at Home Kit, which includes a cheese-melting pan and the cheese, pickled and grilled vegetables, and salami.

Or get creative and fashion your own meat and cheese board from your favorite grocery store. The rule of thumb for cheese is three – soft, hard and blue. Add a variety of cured meat and some pickles, olives, crackers and dried fruit. And a bottle of bubbly, of course, to say good riddance to 2020.

In 2020, most of us came face to face with a thing called liminal space, that uncomfortable place between life as we knew it and an unknowable future. Oddly, that may be the biggest silver lining of this year – learning to wait patiently for the unpredictable to resolve itself.

Spyridon will take something into 2021 he never imagined this year, a new focus on charitable giving born of the twin catastrophes of the tornadoes earlier this year and the ongoing pandemic.

Using a foundation created in 2006, the agency distributed more than $2.5 million to help not only those in the hospitality and music industry but the public at large.

“It was kind of a weird year because Butch is always selling, and this year it was good to give back to the community,” says Bonna Johnson, vice president of corporate communications. “When the tornadoes and COVID hit, we pivoted and started raising money for nonprofits.”

Do Good

Nashville’s New Year’s Eve is partnering with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee to feed hungry families in Nashville. From now through the end of December, anyone can participate in a virtual food drive with every $1 donated providing four meals.
Partners in the hospitality industry are being asked to launch their own food drives. During last year’s food drive, the NCVC and its partners collected more than 7,500 pounds of food that provided over 8,300 meals to people experiencing hunger. To donate

When disaster strikes again (please not in 2021!), Spyridon will be ready. “We want to be better prepared to jump in quicker and help,” he says. “We feel like we’ve helped make a difference.”

Spyridon’s other silver lining involves the New Year’s Eve show.

“We actually will make money on this event for the first time,” he says. “It won’t be much but we’ll actually net a small profit where normally it’s a big financial loss, but we make up for it in media and visitor spending.”

From a business perspective, he’s also optimistic.

“We truly think the second half of the year looks pretty good,” he says. “The vaccine has given some of our clients some comfort. We have a good shot at holding our business and even getting some ramp up. With a little luck and hard work we start to feel it by late March.”

For Mortensen, the future is a mixed bag statewide. The resort areas near the Smoky Mountain National Park did well in 2020.

“Sevierville and Gatlinburg have had a record year,” he points out. The Smoky Mountain National Park has had a record year. If you look at the state as a whole Nashville has done the worst. Memphis was challenged, as well.”

He believes business travel will come back, but perhaps not at pre-2020 levels. “I’m not sure business travel will ever come back the way it was,” he adds.

“You look at 2020…our travel expenditures were down by millions of dollars. Our business travel will take a long time to come back. That becomes a bit of a challenge because our hotels depend on that kind of travel.”

And then there’s the tale of big versus small. Larger hotels and restaurant chains could better withstand the economic devastation in 2020. Most small businesses had no such cushion.

“Some of the bigger hotels and restaurants are betting on a brighter tomorrow,” he says. “But there are a group of folks out there who are shutting down and we may hear about it in the news or never hear about it.”

And speaking of houses, you – dear readers – have two jobs to do this New Year’s Eve and Day. The first is to take a few coins outside your front door Dec. 31 and bring them back inside on Jan. 1. That Appalachian tradition means that you are bringing money into the house the first day of the year for wealth.

The second is to make some kind of pork, black-eyed peas and greens New Year’s Day so that you live high off the hog, with a good dose of luck and even more wealth in the coming year.

Come on - 2021 is depending on you.