For the second time in its more than 250-year history, Sussex County Return Day is being canceled due to a pandemic.
Last week, Return Day Committee President Debbie Jones announced that the historic event in Georgetown would not take place as scheduled Nov. 5 due to COVID-19 state-of-emergency restrictions.
Return Day has only been canceled a handful of times. It was called off in 1918 because of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and it didn't take place from 1942 to 1946 because of World War II.
Return Day takes place every two years, with crowds from 5,000 to as many as 12,000 people.
Jones said it was a heart-wrenching decision. “Nobody loves Return Day more than I do,” she said. “Pulling the plug was hard to do.”
Jones said trying to work out logistics with state-of-emergency restrictions in place was too overwhelming. She said the committee was working hard to have the event, but it became apparent last week that they could not follow the restrictions of staging a large gathering requiring social distancing, face coverings and sanitizing.
“Then when the governor extended the state of emergency, that took the wind out of our sails,” she said.
“A lot of the people who make the event what it is were not coming,” said Jim Bowden, committee vice president.
He said there would be no high school bands in the parade, and many of the carriage and car owners who transport politicians in the parade had canceled.
“A lot of people are afraid. It became a logistical nightmare,” Jones said.
Jones said the dignitaries stage on The Circle is normally packed with rows of politicians and invited guests. “We would have definitely had to space out the chairs and cut back on how many could sit on the stage. Who would I tell they could not come up there?” she asked.
In the end, she said, “A scaled-down Return Day would not be what people expect, and it would have put us in a bad light.”
A truly unique event
Although the actual start date of Return Day is not known, it probably dates back to 1792. Voters were required to cast their election ballots in Georgetown, the county seat, and then return two days later to hear the results, hence the name Return Day.
Return Day is one of the most unique election events in the country. Winners and losers of each race, many riding together in horse-drawn carriages, antique cars or convertibles for the parade, join together afterward to literally bury the hatchet in Sussex County beach sand. While the parade is the highlight of the event, Georgetown shuts down the area around The Circle all day to make way for food vendors and entertainment.
As tradition dictates, free roast ox sandwiches are given away following the ceremony when election results are read by the town crier.