TRAVERSE CITY — Boats and pontoons took up residence in the clear waters of Torch Lake. The colors of the water moved from a milky-yet-crystal green around the infamous sandbar to shades of darker blue the farther away revelers got from the Fourth of July party epicenter in northern Michigan.
Small mid-morning waves rolled through hundreds of people gathered at the sandbar on Torch Lake’s south end Saturday. That number climbed into the thousands as cars and trucks lined up to drop their boat in the waters. Others — sans boat — trekked to the walk-out area with rafts, towels and coolers in tow.
The Independence Day bash at Torch Lake is a tradition stretching back more than a half century, Antrim County Sheriff Dan Bean said. But the identity and feel of the celebration has changed over the decades, moving recently from a “drunk fest” to something a tad more family oriented.
Saturday felt different than it had in years past as the spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic provided the only gray cloud hanging over what was a hot summer day with a bright sun and blue skies.
“You can see it,” Bean said. “Nobody out there is going to wear a mask. I don’t care what you do or how close they are. How are you going to regulate that out there? It’s just not going to happen.”
The resurgence of the coronavirus still could not dampen the spirits of some.
Ken Laird worked on his boat and prepped it for the water as he waited in line at the Torch River Bridge launch site. He said he’ll keep his boat away from “the mess” and drop anchor somewhere safe before “venturing” into the party zone on foot.
For the 23-year-old Laird, getting out on the waters of Torch Lake is as intertwined with the Fourth of July as grilling burgers, setting off fireworks or watching James Cagney tapdance down the stairs at the end of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
He understands the concern about COVID-19 and the reasons for social distancing, but he said it isn’t something he worries about.
“Most of the people I’m here with, we’ve either been quarantined together or we only see each other,” he said. “If people aren’t going to do it here, they’re going to do it somewhere else. There’s no way they can really stop everyone from not social distancing.”
Although the risk of contracting COVID is higher indoors, Josh Petrie, a research assistant professor with the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said the possibility of catching and transmitting the coronavirus rises as crowds get bigger and people are in close contact with one another for longer periods of time.
The University of Michigan Health Lab estimates that every infected person can “reasonably be expected to pass the virus along to two to three others.”
“That’s probably just as risky as being inside,” Petrie said, adding the amount of people coming from outside the Torch Lake area increases the risk even more.
Petrie said the simple fix is decreasing the number of people that come in contact with other people. Events like the one at Torch Lake on Saturday could increase the spread — if there are COVID-positive cases there — but Petrie said “a lot of it is chance, right now.”
“Even a couple of people with COVID that make a lot of contacts in northern Michigan could really increase spread. Then you’re worried about a hot spot,” he said. “Not everyone who is participating in something like that lives in that area. They could be spreading it to their hometowns. It becomes a lot harder to track down those cases and prevent further spread.”
Thirty-one miles to the southwest of Torch Lake, a typical massive gathering passed by July 4 with little more than conversation.
The National Cherry Festival in Traverse City was canceled for the first time since 1947 — as were the annual Fourth of July Fireworks show by the Traverse City Boom Boom Club and the air show.
No Cherry Fest meant there was no yearly run of nearly half a million people to the area.
Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers called 2020 challenging, but he added that northern Michigan is still a destination during the holiday despite the pandemic “messing with the economy.”
“It’s quieter,” Carruthers said. “There’s still people here. It’s a typical summer. People are out on boats. People are downtown enjoying themselves. We’re not all closed down and consumed by the Cherry Fest, so it does feel different.”
Kat Paye, the executive director of the National Cherry Festival, has no recollection of what July 4 looks like without the Cherry Fest. Paye, who has volunteered with the Cherry Fest since she was 8 years old, said she had to ask her husband what they should do Saturday.
“This is a pivotal time. It’s part of creating memories and building traditions. It’s such a rich history,” Paye said. “Those traditions are still alive and well — even with the Cherry Festival not happening this year.”
But she knows canceling the event was the right decision.
“It’s sad, but also uplifting in its own sort of way,” she said. “People are going to find backyard ways to celebrate and have their own festival and barbecue and spend America’s birthday in their own neighborhood of families. It just won’t be in the masses. And that’s not a bad thing — it’s just different.”
With no Cherry Fest, Carruthers said residents can take a preview of what Traverse City would look like with no festivals after years of “festival fatigue.”
“Some are going to enjoy it. Some aren’t,” he said. “But this will definitely be a summer to remember and to base future decisions on.”