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Columbia's Famously Hot New Year won't be an in-person event amid COVID-19

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Let's throw a surprise retirement party for 2020

During the course of the last decade, Columbia's Famously Hot New Year has become a key holiday event in the Capital City, with thousands of people crowding downtown to ring in the new year with music, revelry and fireworks.

But that celebration is not going to happen in the same manner this year.

Famously Hot New Year co-founder and president Sam Johnson tells Free Times that New Year's Eve event will not be in-person this year, because of concerns about the novel coronavirus. It will instead be a virtual event, and Johnson says it will be broadcast on local TV station WLTX.

"It will be broadcast, and I'm sure it will be broadcast online, as well," Johnson says. "There will be a Famously Hot New Year celebration, but there just will not be an in-person component to it. With everything that is going on, you just can't contemplate having a mass crowd like that. Don't get me wrong, it would be great if Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and Dr. [Deborah] Birx and [state epidemiologist] Dr. Linda Bell and everyone that we put our faith and trust in said, 'Hey, you can go out and have 20,000 people on Main Street.' But, with what we know right now, we just can't do that."

This year will mark the 10th edition of Famously Hot New Year. The New Year's Eve celebration has slowly become a tradition of the holiday season in Columbia. It has welcomed a number of notable musical artists through the years, including George Clinton, The Wallflowers, Lauryn Hill, Trombone Shorty, and The O'Jays, among others.

Numerous key Columbia events have been canceled or altered because of COVID-19. The virus has continued to spread across the Palmetto State this summer and has, since the pandemic started, infected almost 95,000 South Carolinians, with more than 1,800 deaths.

Johnson says Famously Hot New Year organizers have been contemplating whether to switch to a broadcast/virtual event for some time.

"We've given it a lot of thought," Johnson says. "Of course Mayor [Steve] Benjamin is a part of that brain trust. He's certainly had the vision to be the impetus for the celebration. It's just become clear over the last several weeks that it was not going to be an in-person event. The biggest challenge now is figuring out exactly how we want to do it."

Free Times has reached out to Benjamin for comment.

Johnson says there will still be a musical component to the New Year's Eve party, though a headline act has not yet been named. Benjamin will, as typical, do a countdown as midnight approaches, and there will be fireworks.

The festival president insists he is not disappointed that the 10th edition of Famously Hot New Year won't be an in-person celebration. Johnson says he thinks it's important to carry on with the event, even virtually.

"We'd love to be able to ring in [the arrival of 2021] in-person and celebrate that," Johnson notes. "But, the reason the mayor started the event was for people to be able to celebrate the wins and the losses that they had in a given year. I think you could argue that there is no more important year to do that than in a year where, in some people's eyes, the losses have outweighed the wins. It's important this year to be able to have a celebration, period, whether it is in-person or not. 

"Ultimately, the most important thing is for people to be safe. Certainly we'd all love for it to be in-person. But if you really care about people, and you want people to be safe, [switching to virtual] is a no-brainer."

Famously Hot New Year is typically a regular recipient of city hospitality tax funding, but as the city's coffers have been walloped by COVID-19, and with the event now going virtual, Johnson says it remains uncertain how much of that funding will be allocated this year.

"I think Council is trying to figure out now what they are going to do with those allocations," he says. "Our budget will be reduced this year. Not sure exactly what that number is going to be with the city. We've had conversations with the city to try to figure out how lean we can do it."

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