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First WaterFire lighting of the season held in honor of COVID-19 heroes

WaterFire returns for the first time since November 2019

The Providence River was lit up for the first time in nearly two years Sept. 4 as WaterFire held a special lighting in honor of “COVID heroes” — Rhode Islanders who served as essential workers throughout the pandemic. Last year’s break due to the pandemic was the first time in the event’s 25-year history that the river was not illuminated.

The event celebrated “people in government, folks who made a difference in their community, folks that brought lunches to elderly people, healthcare workers, grocery store workers, people who made a difference in the small business community,” said Laura Duclos, director of creative services at WaterFire.

Duclos described the event as “extremely well-received” both in the Providence community and in nearby areas. “WaterFire is truly one of the things they look forward to every year, so of course not having that for an entire year was so different for people who had it as a tradition.”

Peter Mello, managing director of WaterFire, said that the event had a strong showing, with about 20,000 attendees. Although this was slightly smaller than a normal showing, Mello was pleased with the turnout nonetheless. “It was great to be back.”

WaterFire worked with the city and state to identify essential workers, and close to 100 of these individuals were selected as torch-bearers for the opening procession, Mello said. All 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island were represented.

The idea to thank COVID-19 heroes had been at the forefront of conversations since the pandemic began, Duclos said. To express gratitude for frontline workers, the WaterFire arts center added an installation called Beacon of Hope, which is a beacon of fire surrounded by glowing lamps.

“We knew we wanted to come back strong with something that celebrated those people,” she said.

As the torch-bearers walked through the crowd, “folks were clapping. I noticed somebody that was saying ‘thank you’ to almost everybody that walked by,” Duclos said. “It was really moving and powerful, and it was a way to thank all of the people who made such a difference in the past eighteen months.”

Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee led the ceremony. “Rhode Island owes a debt of gratitude to our COVID heroes,” McKee wrote in a statement. “It has been a challenging year and a half, and these remarkable Rhode Islanders have never backed down … all essential workers continue to step up to the plate for their fellow Rhode Islanders.”

WaterFire requested that all attendees engage in mask wearing and social distancing for the event, regardless of vaccination status. The Rhode Island Department of Health held a pop-up vaccination clinic on Washington Street during the event.

“This is an iconic celebration that’s unique to our wonderful city and state,” Mello said. “People have been looking for ways to get beyond this nightmare for the last two years, and we knew our role was to inspire people by creating art.”

Although WaterFire’s return this year saw fewer vendors and performances than typical, organizers remain hopeful about scaling up for the future. “We’re building back,” Duclos said. “We’re going to build back the auxiliary elements: more performers, more vendors, live music on the street level.” But, “the core of it is there.”

Zanagee Artis ’22, who attended WaterFire his first semester at Brown, said WaterFire was “essentially the same,” although he noted the lack of vendors and shore events. As a first-year, he’d assumed he would be able to go anytime, and that “it was really cool to be back now, being a senior, at the same event from my first semester.”

WaterFire started later than normal this year due to financial constraints and the ongoing pandemic, Mello said. “Ninety-five percent of our sponsorship revenue dried up, so we had to find other funding sources to make it happen, as many of the corporate dollars were not coming in yet.”

The 2021 WaterFire season will include four full lightings and five partial lightings, including a salute to veterans, a 25-year anniversary lighting and a WaterFire for the Holidays lighting in December. The next lighting, a partial one, will take place Sept. 18


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