Fredericksburg officially kicks off the 2020 holiday season downtown this Saturday with its traditional Open House Weekend.
As in years past, shop windows will be decorated with holiday displays, Christmas music will be playing and programs to draw shoppers downtown will begin in earnest.
But because nothing this year can escape the effects of COVID-19, business owners, city economic development staffers and leaders at Main Street Fredericksburg have had to use a mix of creativity and concern for safety to tweak how commerce and entertainment will play out this holiday season.
Yes, a Christmas parade and a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony are still planned. It’s unclear if new, statewide COVID-19 restrictions set to take effect next week will change those and other city holiday events in the works.
But the planned “Light Up the Season” parade Dec. 5 will be one where floats will be stationary and safely distanced in Central Park while those “attending” will drive by to see them. And the tree-lighting will be virtual, with those who want to experience it advised to watch from home via Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.
Yes, merchants hope shoppers will beat paths downtown to purchase gifts for friends and family in a time of year where holiday sales make or break the year for many.
But initiatives backed by the Fredericksburg EDA and Main Street program will ask Shoppers to extend the Small Business Saturday event to become Small Business Saturdays. That’s being done to avoid crowds on any one single day by asking shoppers to pick one of the many Saturdays from Nov. 28 through Christmas to shop local.
And special QR codes posted on many shop windows will allow shoppers nervous because of COVID-19 to get information about the stores and videos to watch before deciding to go inside. For those shoppers who aren’t comfortable going inside shops during a pandemic, special 15-minute parking spots have been added throughout downtown to accommodate online ordering and subsequent curbside pickup.
The precautions put in place to protect the safety and health of shoppers and shopkeepers alike extend to programs such as the “Winter Wonderland” riddle contest. In it, visitors downtown visit participating shops, where they try to answer the riddles they find on shop window.
This year, those taking part can still pick up entry forms at the city’s Visitor Center at 706 Caroline St. But they can also download that sheet online and upload it when finished at VisitFred.com, eliminating sources of possible COVID-19 spread while still competing for the chance to win $1,000 in downtown gift cards and other prizes.
Other changes: Santa won’t be wandering around through the holiday crowds, but the Rappahannock Rotary Club will be delivering a Santa’s Mailbox to the corner of Caroline and George streets. There’s some chance a live Santa may be involved at some point, but if so, St. Nick would probably set up shop behind a glass window to keep him and youngsters stopping by safe.
“Coming up with plans for this year, we were looking to find ways that people could still do the things they’ve always enjoyed doing during the holidays with their own family members,” said Danelle Rose, who’s overseeing Christmas events for the city’s economic development office. “But we were also looking to find ways for them to do that without having to be in big crowds downtown.”
She added, “We know some people are comfortable coming downtown and going into stores, and we know some still aren’t. So we looked to find ways so that all people could feel safe in what they’re doing.”
Ann Glave, executive director of the Fredericksburg Main Street organization, said that COVID-19 “caused us to think of things differently, and that’s not always a bad thing because it can push you towards being more creative.”
She noted that the reverse parade in Central Park may make it easier for those who attend to see things better than in streets jammed with people. And she added that the Rappahannock Rotary Clubs Santa’s Mailbox will be a great way to handle letters to Santa.
“It’s challenging because we’re trying to keep downtown vibrant and open, but not having crowds congregating at one time,” she said. “Everything we have been looking at has maintaining social distancing as a part of it.”
She said the spreading out of what has previously been a one-day-only Small Business Saturday promotion over a handful of weekends is a perfect example of that. The hope is that stores will benefit on those days and others from special offers and specials shared online at FXBGLoveLocal.com and on social media.
She noted one program downtown that’s new this year is called “Holiday Shop, Sip, Snack and Stroll.” Those who take part would get stamps for downtown purchases from Nov. 28 through the end of December that could win them $500 in downtown gift cards and other prizes through special drawings.
“In other years, we offered free coffee and Danish, but that wasn’t practical this year,” she said. “This activity, which can be spread out over weeks, gives people extra reason to shop downtown and have some fun doing so.”
Rose said she thought the opportunity for businesses to highlight gifts and more at fxbglovelocal.com can help offset fear of shopping in person.
“We will have more than 25 of these 15-minute parking spots for curbside pickup,” she said of that new effort. “Shoppers can order online, swing by and have merchants put their purchases right in their car.”
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415