As cases of the COVID-19 continued to rise, Mike Lombardo knew Pittston had to take a year off from one if its most anticipated traditions.
“We have to pull the plug on the Tomato Festival,” the mayor and festival committee chairman said this week. “We’ve looked at this from every angle.”
The annual festival, hosted in downtown Pittston every August for more than 30 years, typically draws tens of thousands of people over its four days. Lombardo said even with plans to cancel the annual parade and tomato fight, controlling the crowd would not be feasible.
“It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s the right decision,” he said. “Public safety comes first.”
Lombardo and the festival committee has spent the last few months planning as normal, with an eye on the spread of COVID-19 in the area. In recent weeks however, Lombardo said committee members and festival vendors alike had expressed concerns about the safety of holding the festival, even with “stripping down” some of the more popular aspects of the festival.
“There was no way any of us felt good about the parade … we pulled the fight,” Lombardo said. “We had already gutted some pieces … and stripping it down already causes some loss.”
Jason Sabatelle of Sabatelle’s Market, a Tomato Festival staple, was “not surprised” by the decision to cancel.
“We just have to ride this storm out and not take any chances,” he said. “It’s such a bummer but the mayor did the right thing.”
Unlike some businesses, Sabatelle’s was able to remain open since the stay-at-home orders began in March.
“It’s been huge busy,” Sabatelle said. “It was important to keep the food coming for people.”
The Tomato Festival normally brings tons of business to Sabatelle’s stand, but losing it for one year will not hurt too badly.
“It’s upsetting, but I’m not worried,” he said.
The city has started hosting smaller outdoor events on the Tomato Festival lots. The weekly farmers market kicked off on Tuesday, and Lombardo said that event will continue for the time being.
“That scale went well,” he said. “There was never a point where we had a massive amount of people.”
Lombardo hoped to see a similar scale at the first Second Friday Art Walk of the year, scheduled for July 10.
While disappointed to be taking a year off, Lombardo remains optimistic that the festival will return with even more amenities and events to look forward to in 2021.
“We’re going to finish our work on the lot and come back next year stronger than ever,” he said.