Robbie Shaw, right, helps guide crane operator Tim Brown as he lowers the city’s holiday tree into position Saturday in Market Square in downtown Augusta. The tree was cut down beside the Augusta Police station the day before. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — In Maine’s capital city, the beginning of the winter holiday season is marked annually by the arrival of the holiday tree to Market Square on Water Street.

On Saturday, like clockwork, the convoy bearing the newly cut evergreen tree made its stately way down the hill at the south end of downtown with a police escort. And within an hour, with the help of Brownies Landscaping and Excavation, the tree was set in place, ready for decoration.

Alfred The Augusta Elf hangs onto the crane cable that’s about to lift the city’s holiday tree into position Saturday in Market Square in downtown Augusta. The Elf On The Shelf will be featured in city’s holiday event promotions. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

But when the tree lighting takes place at 6 p.m. Friday, it won’t with be crowds and carols. Augusta residents will be able to watch the event on CTV7, Augusta’s public access channel, from the warmth and safety of their homes.

“When COVID hit, it forced us to rethink,” Bruce Chase, Augusta’s parks and recreation director, said.

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases across Maine have surged, with daily reports of new cases now routinely breaking records after months of having among the lowest rates of spread in the United States. On Saturday, the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention on Saturday reported 168 cases of the novel coronavirus and one additional death.

Health experts continue to urge state residents to take precautions and consider limiting holiday plans.

For holiday planners in Augusta and elsewhere, any event that would draw a crowd — particularly in a confined space — would be off the table; public health restrictions under Maine’s continuing civil emergency has imposed limits on gathering sizes and now require wearing masks when out in public.

That means parades, tree lightings, tree walks and sitting on Santa’s lap are all out this year, and drive-by or remote events are in.  It also means that events even a week out are subject to change if further restrictions are put in place in coming days.

But for now, Chase said Augusta will celebrate Hometown Holidays, with a slate of events designed to comply with state regulations. While Santa will visit downtown Augusta on Saturday, Chase’s department is taking reservations for 15-20 families to meet with him from 10:30 a.m. to noon. At 1 p.m., he said, Santa and Mrs. Claus will tour Augusta in a Corvette, escorted by the city’s police and fire departments.

Saturday’s events will be capped off by a drive-in fireworks display at 5:15 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center. Chase said the civic center’s parking lot can accommodate 1,100 cars, but it’s clear that far more people will be able to see the half-hour display put on by Central Maine Pyrotechnics from the nearby Marketplace at Augusta and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re asking people to stay in their cars and stay socially distant,” he said.

The city’s holiday tree is lowered onto a trailer Friday ust after being cut down beside the Augusta Police station. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The need to keep people from gathering has canceled holiday parades, which generally start Thanksgiving weekend and continue into early December, across the region and caused some communities to cancel their regularly scheduled tree-lightings.

And even as some plans are taking shape, organizations and communities are urging people to check their websites and Facebook pages for updates, changes or cancellations.

Debora Southier, Manchester’s town clerk, said her town usually has a tree lighting, but that’s been called off.

While there has been some discussion of doing something different, nothing has taken shape so far, Southier said.

“We usually do Wreaths Across America,” she said, during which volunteers gather to hang wreaths on the graves of veterans. That will go ahead this year, but there will be no social gathering.

While some communities rely on municipal committees to put together events, others rely on business organizations, who work to draw support for their members.

Unable to put on its annual holiday parade that routinely draws about 1,500 people, the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce has come up with a different plan that meets Maine’s public health requirements.

This year, the chamber is hosting a “Drive-by Santa” event on Dec. 5. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., families are invited to speak with Santa and see Mrs. Claus and other holiday characters — who will be on Town Hall Lane in front of the Winthrop YMCA — from their cars while they wear masks and practice social distancing.  Children can also write letters to Santa, which will be dropped in a “Letters to the North Pole” mailbox.

The chamber is also sponsoring a “Light Up the Holidays” decorating competition between businesses in Winthrop, Monmouth, Manchester, Wayne, Readfield, Mount Vernon and Fayette to draw attention and shoppers to support local businesses.

Robbie Shaw, bottom left, helps direct crane operator Tim Brown as he lowers the city’s holiday tree into position Saturday in Market Square in downtown Augusta. The tree was cut down beside the Augusta Police station the day before. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

In western Kennebec County, Sustain Wayne organizes the annual Wayne Holiday Stroll to highlight local shops and the work of local crafters, topped off with a tree-lighting, carol singing and a visit from Santa.

“We thought that would not fly this year,” said Tammy Green Birtwell, who makes and sells a line of handmade soaps through Birtwell Farm Goods.

While the pandemic is taking away many traditional activities, she said, it’s also opening up other opportunities. The Wayne Holiday Stroll is going virtual. While individual businesses may still be holding open houses for holiday shoppers, at least 20 vendors will be selling their wares online.

Birtwell said Wayne draws a lot of people in the summer who may still want to shop locally in Wayne for the holidays, and the virtual stroll will allow them to do that. Details are expected to be announced soon on the Sustain Wayne website.

In Gardiner, where the holiday parade has been canceled, and where plans for a virtual tree lighting are still being developed, Dove and Missy Cohen say they don’t usually take part in Gardiner’s events, so any changes won’t affect them.

The Cohens have already scaled back their holiday plans for Thanksgiving; where they might celebrate with 30, this year it will be seven.

As the holiday season progresses, it’s likely to be equally low-key.

“The timing never usually works out,” Missy Cohen said. “We work out of town and get back too late.”

If they take in any holiday events, it’s usually in Brunswick, where they work, Dove Cohen said.

And when they celebrate Hanukkah, it’s usually a more private celebration.

But some feel the changes more keenly.

Connie Coleman, who was visiting her daughter in Gardiner for Thanksgiving, is facing a scaled back holiday season and it’s a loss she feels keenly.

“I would be doing it all,” she said.

Coleman, who lives in Calais, has a big family, but observing social isolation since March has meant not seeing them, and not making routine trips to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, because the Canadian border has been closed.

In a normal year, she and her family would take in all kinds of events, seeing theater productions in Monmouth, Penobscot County and Ogunquit in the summer and holiday events later in the year. This year, the only event they have scheduled is a driving tour of Gardens Aglow at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. They’ll take two carloads down for the tour.

“It’s the little things like this that you have to enjoy this year,” she said.

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