Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's Regatta cancelled for 2020, for 1st time in 80 years

The Royal St. John's Regatta has officially been cancelled for 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the regatta committee announced Wednesday.

St. John's looking at options for how August civic holiday will be celebrated

Rowers won't be on the water for the Royal St. John's Regatta in 2020. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

The Royal St. John's Regatta Committee announced Thursday morning that the event will be cancelled this summer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's the first time since 1940 and the Second World War that the regatta won't be held.

Bradley Power, president of the regatta committee, says it was a difficult but necessary decision.

"The regatta is such an important event — a lot of charities and non-profits depend on it. Of course, our athletes are very excited to get back to the pond when they can," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"So it wasn't an easy decision to make. We waited as long as we could, but recognizing that our athletes need a couple of months of practice, we'd really gotten to the point where we had no choice."

As part of the province's COVID-19 alert level system, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said large gatherings would be put on hold for the foreseeable future.

"That means festivals and other large events planned for this summer and early fall will not be able to go ahead," Fitzgerald said.

Power said he and the committee support the guidance given by government and health officials, even if that means cancelling the regatta.

"I do feel for the rowers, I feel for the participants, I share in their disappointment, but I think everyone will agree today this was the right decision and certainly what's needed to protect our community," he said.

While the boathouse on Quidi Vidi Lake may be able to open at some point this summer, Power said, it would be difficult to practise physical distancing in a boat, with rowers about a foot apart.

What about the holiday?

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen says he agrees with cancelling the regatta.

"It's a large piece of our culture and heritage. It's obviously disappointing, but the time that we're in right now, it's the only decision that could possibly be made," he said.

About 50,000 people are estimated to crowd around Quidi Vidi Lake each August for the Royal St. John's Regatta. (CBC)

But without a regatta, what happens to the municipal Regatta Day holiday?

Breen said each municipality is granted a civic holiday under the Municipalities Act, with many choosing to schedule on the first Monday in August. It's now up to city council to choose when that holiday will be, the mayor said.

"One of the options that's available is to move the holiday to coincide with the other civic holidays on the Northeast Avalon. I believe that would be moved to the Monday," he said.

"Our staff are looking at that now and [will] bring something to council as soon as possible to make a decision on that, but that seems to be one of the most likely options."

Breen said the cancellation of the regatta, along with the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and the George Street Festival last week, also shows the effect COVID-19 is having on tourism in the city.

The historic event, held annually on the first Wednesday in August, weather permitting, marked its 200th anniversary in 2018, and draws tens of thousands of people to Quidi Vidi Lake each year.

The 2019 regatta drew tens of thousands of people — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

"Although we are disheartened that there will be no Royal St. John's Regatta in 2020, the health and safety of our stakeholders is our first priority," said Noelle Thomas-Kennell, committee vice-president and captain of the course.

"While we are proud of our 202 years of tradition, such tradition will never be at the expense of our community's health and safety. We will support all continued efforts against the spread of the coronavirus." 

The committee said there will be information on a new consultation process in the coming days, as it wants to be well prepared for when a regatta can be safely held.

"We've been doing different things over the past couple of years — we have an ergometer regatta, we have a fall fun regatta, and now we're going to start looking, is there anything we can do digitally? Is there anything we can do outside of being down at Quidi Vidi Lake?" Power said.

Power said the committee has been in contact with the Placentia, Harbour Grace and Humber Valley regatta committees, which will be making similar announcements in the coming days.

The Placentia Rowing Club announced in a Facebook post Monday that the 2020 Placentia Regatta and all associated activities are cancelled. In the post, the club said it agrees with the public health restrictions and will work hard toward the 2021 regatta.

Another festival along the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake has also been cancelled as a result of the pandemic, as the Iceberg Alley Performance Tent announced its cancellation Wednesday.

Concert organizers said in a tweet that ticket holders will receive a full refund within two weeks and they are looking ahead to September 2021.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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