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Pandemic cancels St. James Christmas Eve bonfire celebration

December 10, 2020 GMT

CONVENT, La. (AP) — A Louisiana parish canceled their annual Christmas Eve bonfire celebration due to an increase in coronavirus cases, officials said.

St. James Parish officials called off the event Wednesday, after discussing possible plans with the State Fire Marshal’s office, news outlets reported.

Officials said they were concerned about the crowds the event could bring in and how they could maintain social distancing, since the event runs for miles along the Mississippi River levee.

The two groups tried to find an alternative way to hold the bonfire safely but rising COVID-19 cases halted the discussion.

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On Wednesday, the parish said their positivity rate had nearly doubled, hitting 16.9%.

“This was by no means an easy decision to make as this tradition is long standing and special to our community in particular,” parish officials said Wednesday. “We understand this has been an extremely difficult year for many of us and we have hoped for a sense of normalcy in the Christmas season especially, however, we must first and foremost protect the health, safety and well-being of our residents.”

The Christmas Eve bonfire celebrations in St. James and other river parishes may have begun in the late 1800s. The bonfires are tepee-shaped and are said to light the way for Papa Noel on his nighttime ride to deliver gifts.

Today the levee bonfires have become a tourist attraction and typically, bonfire construction starts after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Parish President Pete Dufresne plans to host a Facebook Live discussion on Thursday at new noon “to address in more detail how this decision was made as well as permit refunds and deconstructing of previously built bonfires.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancelation of public celebrations around Louisiana, including Mardi Gras parades and the Carnival season.

Since Louisiana’s outbreak began in March, the health department has confirmed 6,393 Louisiana residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 reached 1,537 Wednesday — more than double since last month and on track to exceed hospitalizations in the state’s last coronavirus spike in July.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.