Return Day 2020 canceled due to COVID restrictions, public health concern

Sussex County Return Day President Debbie Jones addresses the crowd at the 2018 Sussex County Return Day celebration.

GEORGETOWN — The last time Return Day did not take place was 74 years ago, when America was fighting during World War II.

This year, efforts to stage Sussex County’s two-century-old post-election tradition during COVID-19 is a battle that could not be won.

The even-year event unique to Delaware that was to be staged Nov. 5 will not be held due to regulations and restrictions tied to the pandemic and concern for public health.

Debbie Jones, Sussex County Return Day Committee president, announced the cancellation Thursday evening.

“We of the Sussex County Return Day Committee had been working to plan for this year’s event. All along, we had hoped that by this time, the COVID-19 virus would be a thing of the past,” said Ms. Jones. “However, with the current regulations and restrictions, along with the most recent extension of the state of emergency, we have had to make some tough decisions.

“Therefore, it is with extreme sadness, but out of concern for the health and safety of all, that we have decided to postpone this year’s Return Day event that was scheduled for Nov. 5,” she said.

The committee’s vice president, Jim Bowden, said it was a difficult decision, given the uncertainty and restrictions.

“Then, you have all the peripheral things. Schools, are they going to have bands? Are they going to allow the bands to be out?” said Mr. Bowden. “And you have got to think, drivers and wagons come from other states. Do they have restrictions? There were just so many things that were just piling up.

The Indian River High School Marching Band performs on The Circle during the 2018 Return Day Parade.

“There are so many volunteers and so many people that have been putting time in already,” he said. “There is a lot of preplanning, and a lot of good people put in free time to do that. Then, you come down to, ‘Well, we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to cancel.’”

The cancellation announcement came hours after Gov. John Carney extended his state of emergency another 30 days.

“I don’t want to say that that was the final nail in the coffin, but it kind of was just the final push,” said Mr. Bowden.

With September’s arrival, Delaware remains under Phase 2 of Gov. Carney’s reopening plan, which went into effect in June. Under Phase 2, outdoor gatherings or events of up to 250 people are allowed, provided a mechanism is in place for limiting attendance and for enforcement of social distancing and facial coverings or masks.

Several events with larger attendance, one being the Delaware State Fair, have been held with modifications and the state’s approval.

Historically, the Return Day celebration draws thousands of people to the heart of Georgetown and The Circle for daylong events and activities.
Notable festivities, including the gala Return Day Parade, a town crier reading the election results from the courthouse balcony and a burying-of-the-hatchet ceremony by political leaders, mark the symbolic end of Delaware’s political season.

There is also the traditional ox roast, which begins the day before.
More recently, Return Day expanded to a two-day event, with entertainment on The Circle the Wednesday evening before Thursday’s festivities.

But this year, staging all that during the pandemic could not be achieved.
“The safety of everyone involved with Return Day is our priority. This includes many participants and followers who come from surrounding counties and states,” said Ms. Jones. “Even a scaled-back event would have the same concerns and not be what everyone has come to look forward to.”
Mr. Bowden agreed.

“Some people said you could scale the celebration back,” he said. “But at what point do you lose the essence of what you are about? Do you take the chance to delineate the celebration? You want it to be unique, which it is.”

The breaking news from The Morning News announcing the cancellation of Sussex County Return Day in 1942, with America at war.

It had been 74 years since Return Day was not held.

“In looking back at the history of Return Day, the last time it was not held was during 1942 through 1946 due to World War II,” Ms. Jones said.

While the date of the first Return Day in Georgetown is uncertain, it could have been as early as 1792. State law in 1791 removed the county seat from coastal Lewes to the more geographically centered site, later named Georgetown, and required all votes to be cast in the new county seat on Election Day.

The voters would then “return” two days later to hear the results — thus, the name “Return Day.”

In 1811, voting districts in the individual hundreds were established, but the Board of Canvassers presided over by the sheriff would still meet two days later in Georgetown to announce the final tally.

A state holiday in Delaware, Return Day traditionally is observed the Thursday after Election Day in November every even year.

“The moniker for the thing is ‘two days after the election,’” Mr. Bowden said. “It is tied to the election. It’s not like, ‘OK, we’ll just do it in the fall or the first of winter. You are locked into a certain time frame.”

Planning for Return Day in 2022 will likely begin in 2021.

“We’ll come back bigger and better,” Mr. Bowden said.

Ms. Jones added, “We look forward to sharing the next Return Day with you!”