Return Day still on, for now

Sussex County Sheriff Robert T. Lee, right, rides on the Wells Fargo stagecoach during the 2018 Return Day parade. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Do not include Return Day among the marquee events and festivals that have gone down for the count during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not yet anyway.

Sussex County Return Day, the post-election tradition unique to Delaware that has weathered rain and other challenges in its 200-plus-year history, is still a “go” as of the mid-August meeting of the Return Day Committee.

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

“We had a meeting last week, and as of last week, we were still moving forward,” said Sussex County Return Day Vice President Jim Bowden.

A decision on the Nov. 5 event is expected soon.

“We have another meeting in the middle of next month but we’re probably going to make a decision in the next few weeks,” said Mr. Bowden. “So that is kind of where we are with the status.”

Mr. Bowden said Return Day cancellations have only occurred in 1942, 1944 and 1946, due to World War II.

As August nears an end, Delaware remains under Phase 2 of Gov. John Carney’s reopening plan, which went into effect in June. Phase 2 allows outdoor gatherings or events of up to 250 people, for which a mechanism must be in place for limiting attendance, enforcement of social distancing between attendees and facial coverings or masks.

These restrictions precipitated cancellation of numerous events, most recently Georgetown’s Wings & Wheels festival in early October and the Sea Witch Festival in Rehoboth Beach around Halloween.

Some larger events have been held, with approval from the state. The Delaware State Fair in Harrington took place this summer, with modifications and cancellation of some traditional fair events, and with the state’s blessing, a July Fourth celebration at Fat Daddy’s BBQ west of Georgetown drew upward of 800 people, with social distancing and other mandated health and public safety protocols.

Historically, Return Day in Georgetown draws thousands of attendees, various school groups and bands and winning and losing candidates riding on horse-drawn carriages or in vehicles in a gala parade.

Return Day is punctuated with the reading of election results by the town crier from the balcony of the Old Courthouse on The Circle.

Thus far, planning has focused for a traditional Return Day event.

“At this point, we had not talked about modification,” Mr. Bowden said. “I would assume the next meeting, if it was still a ‘go,’ that we would have to start considering, ‘OK, what’s it going to look like if we do go?’ ”

Return Day festivities in 2018 got a jump-start a day earlier with entertainment that included four acts performing on the main stage.

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

Those voters would “return” two days later to hear the results — hence 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.