By JOSEPH FITZGERALD
PAWTUCKET – For the first time in 20 years there will be no dragon boats racing down the Pawtucket River this September.
Citing concerns over the continued spread of COVID-19, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council Thursday announced it has canceled this year’s 21st annual Rhode Island Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival scheduled to be held Sept. 12 at Festival Pier in Pawtucket.
“The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council is certainly disappointed,” said Robert D. Billington, president and chief executive officer of the council. “We spent the last 20 years building up the races and the equipment for an event that promotes the waterfront of Pawtucket in a special way.”
“We were so excited about the races this year taking place in front of the new soccer stadium underway on the Pawtucket River,” he said. “It would have been an exciting time to show the public the possibilities that exist on that stretch of the river and where the stadium will actually be built.”
The races, where teams compete for prizes in Eastern Regional Dragon Boat Association-sanctioned rowing contests along the headwaters of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, is presented every year by the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and is part of the annual Pawtucket Arts Festival. Along with the Dragon Boat Races, the family-friendly Taiwan Day Festival showcases Asian culture, food and music.
The event typically draws a minimum of 10,000 people ever year.
Billington said the decision to cancel both the races and the festival was made following several discussions between all of the stakeholders, including Rhode Island’s Chinese community, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston, the City of Pawtucket, the Pawtucket Arts Festival, the Ocean State Dragon Boat Club, the Rhode Island-based Century Dragon Boat Club and race manager, 22 Dragons.
“We decided that we could not possibly host the event and protect the athletes or the public,” Billington said. “It’s unfortunate because we have 13 dragon boats in the garage waiting to be unleashed. Six of them are not even a year old. It’s sad because this event is held with our Chinese and Taiwanese partners every year. It’s a wonderful, mixed-cultural event, that celebrates the best of our world and the people that live in it.”
Pawtucket Mayor Donald r. Grebien said he too was disappointed that the festival and races have been canceled.
“The Annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival, a family-friendly event, has been a community staple for 20 years. It is unfortunate that the festival will be canceled this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” Grebien said. “We thank Bob Billington and his team at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and everyone who works so hard to bring this event to our community every year. I look forward to being back out there again.”
“I am very disappointed that the dragon boat races have been canceled, but I completely understand why that decision was made,” said Anthony Ambrosino, director of the Pawtucket Arts Festival.
Ambrosino, however, said all is not lost, adding Lillian Hung of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Boston still wants to bring Taiwanese entertainment to this year’s Pawtucket Arts Festival.
Hung is working with Ambrosino and Tourism Council Program Director Michael P. Martin to bring Taiwanese-based acts and activities to the city, a tradition that Hung insists on continuing even though the races have been scratched for this year.
TECO and the Tourism Council have forged a strong long-lasting relationship to promote mutual cultural understanding and economic development. Also, TECO was instrumental in bringing the six new dragon boats to Pawtucket for this year’s races, even paying for the shipping of the vessels.
“I am looking forward to working with Lillian and Mike to ensure Taiwan is well-represented at this year’s arts festival,” Ambrosino said.
“We anticipate the Rhode Island Dragon Races and Taiwan Day Festival will be back in 2021, and the Tourism Council will do everything possible to make the event better than ever,” Martin said.
Billington said the decision to cancel was tough, but necessary.
“Organizers feel it would be irresponsible to have that many people in one area while still trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus,” he said. “It would be nearly impossible to implement social distancing and other preventive measures because of the nature of the festivities.
“Another factor that led to our decision is that it would make no sense to require teams to practice physical distancing by reducing the number of paddlers in dragon boats because it would be too difficult to race the heavy vessels,” he said. “In addition, we have been told that participants have not been practicing because of COVID-19, and that paddlers are not receptive to wearing face coverings while racing.”
Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7