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Gasparilla Pirate Festival won’t surrender to coronavirus fears, organizers say

Tickets are now on sale for January 2021’s Gasparilla events. But what the annual pirate parade will look like is still up in the air.
A crowd lining Bayshore Boulevard celebrates during the Gasparilla 2019 parade on Jan. 26, 2019 in Tampa.
A crowd lining Bayshore Boulevard celebrates during the Gasparilla 2019 parade on Jan. 26, 2019 in Tampa. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Sep. 15, 2020|Updated Sep. 16, 2020

TAMPA — It cancelled the 2021 Rose Parade, turned the nation’s political conventions into Zoom conferences and forced the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to become a virtual TV event that will loop around one New York City block.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic hasn’t sunk plans for next year’s Gasparilla Pirate Festival just yet, said the parade’s longtime organizers. Exactly what the parade will look like, however, and how many pretend pirates can participate is still being worked on.

“Not only are we still planning for Gasparilla, we’re still planning to make it fun too,” EventFest founder and president Darrell Stefany told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.

Related: A year away, Tampa prepares for back-to-back Superbowl and Gasparilla weekends

Tickets for the 2021 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates went on sale that morning for Tampa’s traditional day of pirate-themed partying on Jan. 30. Eight days later, Super Bowl 55 kicks off at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7. Or, at least that’s the plan.

Hundreds of thousands attend Gasparilla and related events each year. If both events are held as scheduled during the pandemic, Tampa will be home to what could be the biggest gathering of crowds in the nation for two consecutive weekends.

“It would be irresponsible for us to just sit on our hands and wait until January to start thinking about what we’re going to do,” Stefany said. "We have to do as much planning and backup planning as we can with what we know to create a safe event for people at a time they may need it most.”

Holding Gasparilla during this public health crisis isn’t impossible, said University of South Florida professor Jay Wolfson, an expert on public health and senior associate dean at the Morsani College of Medicine. He points to Disney World as an example of organizers doing an “excellent job” trying to prevent the spread of an unpredictable virus among large crowds of people.

But there are other factors at play, such as the state’s decision last week to reopen bars and breweries to 50 percent capacity.

“Hope springs eternal and hope is a good medicine,” Wolfson said. “It all depends on how well people behave themselves between now and then. If we have spikes post Labor Day (Sept. 7), post bars reopening, post schools reopening, then it may not be up to the organizers of this event to decide if Gasparilla goes on.”

Stefany said his team has held multiple Zoom meetings with both the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the NFL about how the pandemic could alter plans, and he assured that organizers for both events have “multiple contingency plans in their back pockets.” More intensive meetings with health experts, city leaders and local law enforcement are set to begin next week, he said.

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Tickets are now available for the 2021 Children’s Gasparilla on Jan. 23 and Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest, Invasion Brunch and Parade of Pirates for the following Saturday, Jan. 30.

While the EventFest team can’t say for sure what Gasparilla will look like next year, they know there will be a “socially-distanced reserved Invasion Brunch and parade seating.” EventFest staff are “strongly encouraging” people to purchase tickets in advance to secure a seat in the bleachers erected alongside the parade route.

Seating will be grouped by household, organizers said, with a minimum of one row and one seat between each party. Seats are limited and available on a first-come, first-serve basis, the group said. Families wishing to sit together must order their tickets together to ensure placement.

Reserved bleacher seating for the Children’s Gasparilla Parade starts at $47 per person, and prices for additional “reserved seating options” along the parade route, such as single-row, lawn chair seating, begin at $62 per person.

For a spot in the bleachers during the main Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, seats start at $57 per person, with other reserved seating options starting at $72 per person. Combo ticket packages are also available for $155 per person, and provide access to both the Gasparilla Invasion Brunch and the Parade of Pirates.

Tampa spokeswoman Ashley Bauman told the Times in an email that, while COVID-19 has canceled other large events, city officials are hopeful Gasparilla can take place as scheduled. As of Tuesday, Florida residents were still “encouraged to avoid congregating in groups of 50 or larger” under “Phase 2” of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan for gradually reopening the state. In the City of Tampa, facial coverings were also required when conducting business in public places. But no face coverings are required for outdoor events.

The coronavirus has scuttled or limited nearly every live event: the Tampa Convention Center, ground zero for Ye Mystic Krewe’s annual Gasparilla invasion, had 63 events rescheduled or cancelled this year due to the pandemic. The Lightning are playing in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble, not Amalie Arena.

“Planning is still moving forward but we will continue to review the conditions of COVID-19 in our community and any modifications we’ll have to make," Bauman’s statement said.

Tuesday’s latest data from the state showed that 146 new fatalities tied to the virus were reported, bringing the total number of deaths related to COVID-19 to 12,945. There have now been 668,846 coronavirus infections in Florida, with 3,166 added in the past 24 hours.

In the end, Wolfson said, whether Tampa Bay will celebrate Gasparilla or a Super Bowl in 2021 depends on how well the population deals with the virus right now.

“We’re not getting rid of this anytime soon," he said, "and we’re still learning about what it even is, but we have to live with it in some way.

“But people have to behave themselves, and if they don’t then it will be their fault there’s no Gasparilla.”

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