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The city of Forest Lake held its annual Spring Fling on Saturday, May 1. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the first city-sponsored event since the Christmas tree lighting in December 2019.

Independence Day celebration set for full return

On the morning of Saturday, May 1, Forest Lake Parks and Recreation Coordinator Jamie Muscha set her alarm for roughly 5 a.m. She got to the city center by 6:15 and began handling the last-minute setup inside and around the fire engine bays for the city’s annual Spring Fling, which included a petting zoo, bubble station, lawn games, and a balloon artist. It had been nearly 14 months since the pandemic halted events and gatherings, and 17 months since the city had sponsored any event, with the last one being the Christmas tree lighting in December 2019.

“I was just really excited to have the opportunity to bring the community back together and do it in a safe way,” Muscha said. “I was excited to see people together, having fun, dancing, and enjoying each other’s camaraderie.”

Shutdown 

“It was a challenging period of time, wishing for people to get together and just not being able to with the guidelines in place,” Muscha said. “We tried to discuss, ‘What can we do?’”

There wasn’t much, with Arts in the Park canceled for the season, with only the farmers market remaining open at a limited capacity. Her role shifted to making sure the parks could remain open for area residents and that the city provided a safe and clean environment.

Meanwhile, Forest Lake’s American Legion Post 225 had just wrapped up renovations to its kitchen after a fire, which shut down its restaurant operations since the fall of 2019. Fundraisers for the annual Independence Day celebration, which is sponsored by the Legion, were being planned for March and April 2020 when the shutdowns occurred. And then, as the restrictions continued and the weeks got closer to July 4, a decision was made by the Legion to cancel most of the annual activities, like the parade, carnival, and fireworks, while still doing a brief ceremony just before the flyover at 10 a.m. last year.

“It was a hard decision, because we just couldn’t do it. It takes a lot of time to plan,” said Legion and Independence Day Celebration committee member Vicki Petry. 

Other events were canceled or structured into a drive-by experience, like Wyoming’s Touch a Truck event, which was transitioned to a parade-style event.

“I think last year we did everything we could within the restrictions, to be able to keep people connected, but it’s still so hard,” said Kelly Dumais, Wyoming’s assistant city administrator.

Theater companies, like Forest Lake-based Masquers Theater, closed indefinitely. Masquers was planning on doing its annual children’s theater camps, in addition to the summer musical “Beauty and the Beast,” but made the decision pretty early on that they would postpone until 2021.

“Since we hold our production out of the high school, we knew at that time it would be difficult to not only put on a production, but we didn’t know at that time, would we be able to have an audience at all, or if we can, would we even be able to get anyone to come? ... Everything was pointing towards not being able to hold a show,” said Rachel Peterson, the president of Masquers’ board of directors.

Making plans

As Gov. Tim Walz changed state pandemic restrictions in early May, allowing for full capacity of indoor and outdoor gatherings by the end of the month, Dumais was just beginning to plan the Touch a Truck event, though she said it wasn’t necessarily prompted by the changes in restrictions. 

But for many, preparation for events had to begin months prior with the understanding that a level of flexibility would be required depending on what restrictions would be at the time of the event.

Masquers Theater decided in March to once again postpone its production of “Beauty and the Beast” until the summer of 2022 due to the timing of confirming logistics and the need to inform theatrical licensing agency Musical Theater International.

“While we have a lot of staff that had committed to continue at any time, there was a lot that needed to be committed to. That decision was harder because everything was still up in the air, but we couldn’t commit to doing such a large production and doing it well if it was this summer,” Peterson said.

“Especially because of how large the cast would be for the show and the wide range of ages. Vaccines were barely on the horizon for that decision, and it wasn’t even a thought for 2-to-11-year-olds at the time,” said Emily Lehman Weiberg, Masquers’ educational director.

Masquers is now preparing for an early 2022 production of “Steel Magnolias.”

“[It] is this beautiful story of love and loss and memory, and we thought, with the year we’ve all had, that particular story might resonate more than maybe it has in the past,” Lehman Weiberg said. 

Peterson added, “It’s very thoughtful and emotionally packed, but it’s also a comedic drama, so there’s a lot of high points and lightness to it, as well, so it has a nice blend.”

Masquers’ children’s theater camps will begin in June, though performances will not be made public. Based on registration numbers thus far, Weiberg said she sees great interest. 

“I think there’s this sense of normalcy and also connection with their group of friends, or maybe new friends, and doing that usual kid summer thing they do every year. I don’t think we can stress enough how beautiful of a thing it is and how excited they are,” Weiberg said. 

But preparing for the performances has been a mix of emotions for Peterson. 

“It’s exciting, for sure. It’s definitely also a little nerve-wracking, too,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of questions about how these things are going to look once we get back in an actual show. Is it just going to be business as usual? Is everything over and we go back to the way it was, or will there be — and I think there will be — certain changes for a while we’ll have to maneuver? Everything seems to change so quickly. … But I’d just say we are really excited to be getting back on the stage, however that looks.”

Muscha began mapping out city-sponsored events back in December, when case numbers were still high and vaccination rollouts were just beginning, but Muscha said that after nine months of trying to navigate the ever-changing guidelines, “We had a good idea of what we’re navigating through and how to make those plans.” 

One of the bigger events Muscha had on her plate was the city’s seasonal weekly Arts in the Park event. With the guidelines set at the time, Muscha initially planned for two separate days each week: Tuesdays for the weekly farmers market and vendors market, and Thursdays for the weekly music concert by various artists. Now with restrictions lifted, those days have merged into the traditional Tuesdays with both the vendors and concert, which will kick off on June 15, just two weeks after of the traditional seasonal opening of the event.

In addition to the traditional events, the city partnered with the school district to offer new classes this year that would allow for more flexibility. 

“The city alone, we’re not staffed to run independently, and we really value all our partners like the district and the community,” Muscha said. 

“Coming out of this pandemic storm, if you will, and knowing we’re heading into a different day, one of the things in community ed is meeting the need of the community in a financially responsible and cost-effective way, and strengthening partnerships that stretch resources beyond what we have available here,” said Corey McKinnon, Community Education Director for the district.

The partnership will bring low-cost, drop-in or pre-registered, outdoor recreational classes utilizing city space — many at Lakeside Memorial Park — designed to allow for people to maneuver at their level of comfortability, both in terms of commitment and space. 

“Everybody’s at a different place by way of engagement, and all of that is OK, from ‘Let me at it’ to ‘I’d like to try and I don’t know where I’m at yet.’ We want to make sure we can meet everyone where they’re at,” McKinnon said. 

The classes offered will vary from yoga to children’s crafts.

Independence Day celebrations make full return

As for one of the biggest regional events of the year, the Legion finalized plans just two weeks ago to move forward with Independence Day celebrations as usual this year, including the carnival, parade, and fireworks.

Back in January, discussions began about what a Fourth of July celebration could look like.

“We were still in COVID, still shut down, and there were still no fundraisers. But it was like ‘What if?’ ... Nobody knew, but the plan was to plan for ‘what if,’ knowing if we can’t [have it], we can cancel,” Petry said. Committees were formed to take a look at every aspect of the celebration. Soon after, Petry said, “We go, ‘OK, we may be able to do this!’” Permits were filed with the city and county, and were approved, and the celebration was confirmed with the understanding that things still could change.

The parade will make a return to its usual route down Broadway toward Centennial Drive and back down Lake Street (a full parade route will be included in the July 1 edition of The Times). It will take place on July 3 this year, which has historically been the case when July 4 falls on a Sunday, and will kick off at 10 a.m. beginning with the flyover of historical aircrafts. Some of the traditional parade entries like school marching bands declined to participate this year due to limited practices, but the American Legion is already filling up spots because other parades around the region have been canceled. Included in the lineup are the St. Paul Vulcans of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, and Nordy, the mascot for the Minnesota Wild. The legion is looking for volunteers to help with the parade lineup from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., as well as during the parade as line holders to keep the crowd back.

As for the fireworks over Forest Lake’s First Lake, those will take place on July 4 at 10 p.m.

But all of these events come with a price tag, and considering the Legion has not been able to hold its traditional fundraising events to help offset the cost of the three-day-long celebration, they will be drawing on emergency savings. And that could mean that an Independence Day celebration in 2022 could be in jeopardy.

“From the fireworks to the flyover to any bands that we get, the carnival: all of our Fourth of July account is going to dwindle,” Petry said. 

The cost of the fireworks alone is $20,000, roughly half of the amount the Legion has in its Fourth of July fund. 

“It’s going to be really hard for the Legion to hold enough [fundraising] events to bring that back again to have a 2022 celebration. … It’s going to be tight,” Petry said, adding the Legion is accepting donations for that fund. But despite the gamble the Legion is taking with its finances, Petry said that holding the celebration this year was the right thing to do.

“We are so excited that we’re able to do this,” Petry said. “I’m hoping [the community] is excited, and they come and enjoy and spend time with their families.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story indicated the production of "Steel Magnolias" by Masquers Theater would be early 2021; it is planned for early 2022.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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