TARPON SPRINGS — The annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs this year looked much different than usual Wednesday morning because of the corornavirus pandemic.
But tradition continued when 16-year-old Colten Sakadales emerged from Spring Bayou clutching the 115th annual Epiphany celebration cross.
Read more about him, what he had to say and how the celebration played out here.
Here’s a little more background on how the celebration was planned and how organizers adjusted because of the pandemic:
The banks around Spring Bayou that usually fill up with thousands of people, some from outside Florida, were empty. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, in a typical year standing-room early, was only half-full. Divers milled outside the church, wearing masks.
Diver James Kavouklis’ said he missed the crowds that normally line the bayou. But the Berkeley Preparatory School junior said he still felt the same rush of excitement as he did last year.
“It’s still a time we can share with our families,” Kavouklis, 17, said. “It’s about celebrating Jesus Christ and I try to get emotionally connected to the liturgy service before the dive.”
Here’s what else you need to know about today’s event, normally the largest in the Western Hemisphere to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.
Can the general public attend?
No. The four-hour Mass at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the morning will be capped at 50 percent capacity, or about 250 people, and will be limited to parishioners. The blessing of the waters of the Spring Bayou and subsequent dive for the cross, which last year drew 25,000 spectators, will be limited to the 50 teenage divers, their families, church officials and parishioners with tickets. Officials expect 500 to 800 people to be in attendance.
Why the restrictions?
“We don’t want a super-spreader event,” said Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen. “We meet with the church officials all the time and I believe we have a good agreement that this will be a nice event in a really difficult time.”
He said popular watch areas around the water will be barricaded to deter spectators but he declined to detail how law enforcement will keep the general public from congregating.
So far Wednesday, Kochen and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said they were both happy with how the attendees handled the event Wednesday and adhered to the capacity restrictions put in place by law enforcement.
Only about half of the 800 parishioner passes had been handed out by the time the divers and church members left Mass for the Spring Bayou.
”Going great,” Kochen said. “It’s been a nice event.”
During a Dec. 15 City Council discussion about Epiphany planning, Kochen explained the police department and sheriff’s office would support a scaled down event during the pandemic but would not tolerate a mass gathering. Many in the audience responded by begging the police not to cancel the event. But Gualtieri said that was never being considered.
”They’re doing it today in a safe way which we 100 percent support,” Gualtieri said.
Can people who aren’t parishioners or don’t have tickets watch somehow?
Yes, police and church officials are urging people to stay home and watch it online.
Will masks and social distancing be enforced for those who attend?
Yes. Officers will enforce the use of face masks and social distancing around the bayou, the chief said.
What else will be different?
A number of things. After Mass, for instance, the procession from the cathedral to the bayou, normally a parade of thousands, will be limited to parishioners and divers who will be staggered in groups. The Glendi, a festival of Greek food, music and dancing that typically closes out the day, is canceled. No dignitaries or clergy will come from Greece as they traditionally do. And after a boy finds the cross and emerges from the water, the group has been instructed not to carry him on their shoulders back to the church like normal.
This whole thing is new to me. Can you give a little background?
After blessing the water, a priest throws a cross into the bayou before about 50 teen boys in good standing with the church dive in to try to retrieve it. The dive is a tradition that represents an expression of their faith and rite of passage into manhood. Tradition says the one who emerges grasping the cross is rewarded with a year of blessings. The dive will likely occur sometime between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.
Will the Tampa Bay Times be covering the event like you do every year?
Yes, you can expect stories, photos and video at tampabay.com throughout the celebration today. Our reporters and photographers will be covering the event, though with some modifications to keep our staff members and other attendees safe.
What’s the weather supposed to be like?
Spectrum Bay News 9 predicts it will be mostly sunny today, though coolish with highs not getting out of the 60s after overnight lows bottom out in the 40s. Rain is not expected.
Here are some videos from previous Epiphany celebrations:
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