Bridge Day still on after Justice lobbies for it; chair of event votes to cancel

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — Bridge Day, West Virginia’s largest one day festival, is still a go for Oct. 16 at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville despite some concerns expressed by the festival chair.

The Bridge Day Commission met Wednesday to consider whether the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should cancel the popular event for a second year in a row.

Fayette County Sheriff Mike Fridley made the motion to cancel but his proposal was defeated on a 4-2 vote. Festival Chair Becky Sullivan voted with Fridley after expressing concerns about the current surge of Delta variant cases.

In normal years the event draws about 100,000 people.

The vote came less than two hours after Gov. Jim Justice, during his coronavirus media briefing, lobbied in favor of keeping it on the calendar.

“We’re having football games and everything where we have the big gatherings and everything, so why in the world should we not have Bridge Day?”

Justice said he first heard about a possible cancellation last Friday from state Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby.

“I said ‘Absolutely not,’” Justice said Wednesday before acknowledging it was a local decision.

“All we can do is encourage, it’s their event. But from the standpoint of the government–I think wholeheartedly we should go forward with Bridge Day,” Justice said.

The Fayette County health department administrator and others joined Sullivan in pointing out an increase in COVID cases, Fayette County is ‘red’ on the daily alert map, a possible shortage of shuttle bus drivers and space in hospitals to treat the injuries that usually come from BASE jumping.

Sullivan, who directs the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and is its representative on the commission, said even though the festival is a huge economic boost to the region that’s not more important than community health.

Chamber executive assistant Tim Naylor echoed those thoughts in a interview later Wednesday with MetroNews.

“While we understand there’s a lot of money to be made, there’s a lot of enjoyment to getting out and doing the event, there’s also a lot of concern on our part that it may not be the best thing to do,” Naylor said.

Health and safety guidelines were released Sept. 1. The guidelines include a mask mandate while riding buses and while being in the event perimeter. Organizers also moved up the deadline for the registration of vendors in an attempt to create social distancing.

Naylor said registration for BASE jumpers is at about 305 jumpers which is a higher number than usual with one month to go before the festival.

Justice said Wednesday state resources would be there to help.

“Our DOT (Department of Transportation) and our state police and our tourism department are ready to handle this event,” Justice said. “They will do what they need to do to support the event.”

The four members of the commission who voted in favor of going on with Bridge Day including a representative of the state DOH, a representative of the state police, a Fayette County commissioner and representative of the City of Fayetteville. Naylor said he doesn’t know how much they were influenced by what Gov. Justice said before the meeting.

“I don’t know if that had any input on how the commission voted but it was said,” Naylor said.

Bridge Day 2020 was canceled in July 2020. Sullivan told MetroNews at the time they just couldn’t find a way to make the festival work while meeting social distancing guidelines.

“We tried to come up with some new and innovative ways to do Bridge Day and continue on with the traditions but unfortunately, the guidelines, the uncertainty with coronavirus for the rest of this year, it just wasn’t going to work out,” Sullivan told MetroNews.

The only other time the festival was canceled, besides last year, was 2001 which was shortly after the 9/11 terrorists attacks.

Bridge Day, which began in 1980, averages 300 BASE jumpers from nearly three dozen states as well as 300-plus rappellers. In normal years the festival draws about 100,000 people.

Naylor said the Chamber continues to have concerns but Bridge Day is their event.

“We just have to continue pushing forward with the information we have and making the best decisions we can,” he said.