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By Gemma Handy

Beaches will be open for limited hours during the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays – but how this year’s festivities will look generally amid Covid-19 is still to be determined.

The popular Christmas Day champagne party in Nelson’s Dockyard – an annual tradition for more than three decades – is one major yuletide event to fall casualty to the pandemic.

Organisers confirmed yesterday that the usually well-attended open-air bash had been cancelled for the first time in its history. The party was once named by the New York Times as one of the five best Christmas events in the world.

Meanwhile, government is still ironing out how best to keep up seasonal spirits – to appease both locals and visitors during peak tourist season – while offsetting the risk of Covid contagion.

Christmas in Antigua and Barbuda usually sees a variety of street parties and live music events such as iron band parades.

Information Minister Melford Nicholas told media yesterday that government was “anticipating a number of citizens and residents returning home during the holiday period”, creating a “higher risk” of infection.

He said the “overriding concern” was to ensure that there were no activities “that would cause the virus to spread beyond our ability to control it”.

Hans Smit, of city jewellers Goldsmitty, has organised the dockyard Christmas party in collaboration with the National Parks Authority for years as a fundraiser for local charities. Hundreds of people descend on the historic complex each year and the entry fee also collects vital revenue for the dockyard’s upkeep.

“It’s a pity because it’s always been a lot of fun but this is not the right time for it,” Smit told Observer. “It’s the first time we have ever had to cancel it – and it’s not with pleasure. But it’s just not safe with everyone hugging each other, and it’s unlikely it would have been allowed anyway,” he added.

Andy Liburd, of the National Parks Authority, said discussions were ongoing as to how the venue could safely celebrate this year.

“We know for a fact that we can’t allow the Christmas season to pass without us doing something. But we have to move carefully and cautiously – and curtail activities so they do not violate protocols and put guests’ or staff’s safety at risk,” he said.

The Copper and Lumber Store Hotel will be open for traditional Christmas lunch, Liburd confirmed, and there are also plans to host New Year’s Eve festivities. Throngs of revellers usually turn out for the latter’s fireworks display and live music.

“We are moving towards having New Year’s Eve celebrations,” Liburd added. “It is not confirmed yet but something will be happening on the night.”

The national 11pm curfew has been extended to 1am for New Year’s Eve. Social distancing and mask-wearing must be observed, government says. And the 25-person limit on all indoor events will also remain in place – with the exception of churches. 

Beaches will be open from 5am until 1pm for the next four public holidays, starting with VC Bird Day on December 9. They will also be open during the same hours, Nicholas said, on the three Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays.

It will be the first time beaches have been open on a holiday since lockdowns began in March.

“This has been a thorny issue,” Nicholas admitted. “And I think Cabinet has settled on a compromise where both nationals and visitors alike can enjoy limited access to the beach on the public holidays. We deliberated for a very long time but saw good sense in allowing that … for VC Bird Day and all of the public holidays going forward.”

However, there will still be restrictions on food, music and partying at the beach, he added.

There are currently just seven active coronavirus cases in the country – and officials are keen to keep the infection rate down.

Minutes released to media yesterday from this week’s Cabinet meeting urged residents to abide by health and safety rules.

“There can be no relaxation of the vigilance,” the notes stated, adding, “The Christmas season will be a great challenge as the Cabinet seeks to limit crowding in St John’s as commerce increases.”