While Morgan Hill residents and enthusiasts of public, family-friendly outdoor events may be growing weary of the recent uncertainties surrounding formerly annual gatherings, organizers of one of the city’s most popular celebrations vow to proceed as normal this summer.
And while it is ultimately up to the organizers of events like Freedom Fest, Taste of Morgan Hill and others to determine whether to host festivities under the new normal environment of heightened security risks and increased costs, they can expect their plans to be more closely scrutinized by city officials, police and public safety authorities well into the future.
That applies to the 2023 Freedom Fest, the annual celebration of Independence Day that organizers are determined to host as usual on July 3-4, according to Freedom Fest President Matthew Stein.
“Morgan Hill Freedom Fest has always taken place since 1876. This year it will look identical, or almost identical, to last year,” Stein said.
Some differences—particularly regarding safety protocols—will be apparent. Those include metal detectors at the entrances to the July 4 evening Fireworks on the Green at the Outdoor Sports Complex; a text alert system—for everything from weather information to safety updates—that people who plan to attend the Morgan Hill events can sign up for; and the use of live cameras to keep an eye on the crowds and operations, Stein said.
During the July 4 Independence Day parade in the downtown, scores of volunteer “safety marshals” will be on site, wearing bright yellow vests, Stein added. Attendees can contact any safety marshal with any potential concerns or questions during the event.
Freedom Fest organizers have been working closely with MHPD, the local fire department and city staff in coordinating these and other safety measures for the Independence Day events—which include the July 3 Patriotic Sing and Family Music Fest, in addition to the full slate of July 4 festivities. “We have a robust plan,” Stein said. “We hope and plan for an exciting event and are working with our partners to provide the best event we can for the city.”
Morgan Hill Police Chief Shane Palsgrove confirmed that MHPD has already had a number of meetings with Freedom Fest organizers to develop safety plans.
He noted that Independence Day Celebration, the nonprofit that hosts Freedom Fest, has “done an excellent job” procuring trained security personnel and making sure their volunteers are adequately trained. The organizer has also shown they are planning to have a strong “unified command and control presence” with police and fire during the event.
Palsgrove added that for the foreseeable future, MHPD will continue to work hand-in-hand with organizers who host large public events at sprawling locations like the downtown neighborhood.
“Law enforcement nationwide is enhancing security for special events,” Palsgrove said. That’s because police departments are keenly aware of the increasing numbers of mass shootings—which added up to 691 in 2021, 646 in 2022 and 131 so far this year, Palsgrove said.
As a result, MHPD and other police departments are adopting and imposing protocols and guidelines recommended by federal agencies. Specifically, Palsgrove said MHPD follows the U.S. Department of Justice’s document “Planning and Managing Security for Special Events,” published in 2007 to guide law enforcement agencies nationwide; and a 2017 report by the Federal Emergency Management Administration published in response to the Las Vegas shooting the same year.
The increased risk hits close to home, too, as Palsgrove noted that MHPD officers have responded to two high-profile, deadly mass shootings in recent years: the June 2019 shooting at the Ford Store of Morgan Hill, and the July 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting.
“We are applying lessons learned (and) we understand we must strike a balance between safety and tradition,” Palsgrove said.
Some of the key safety measures that are now incorporated into all special event planning include tight coordination between organizers and public safety agencies; a clearly identified and secured medical triage area; and a strong unified command post, Palsgrove noted.
The cancellation this year of the Morgan Hill Mushroom Festival and the Taste of Morgan Hill are not necessarily a sign of an ongoing trend.
Stein noted that “every event is different.” For Independence Day Celebration, their mission each year is to raise enough funds to host the Freedom Fest events. Other events hosted by other parties, he added, are fundraisers for different causes.
Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce—which has hosted the Taste of Morgan Hill for decades—raise funds for a variety of educational, business assistance and community-building activities every year. Chamber officials have said a key reason they chose to cancel the 2023 Taste of Morgan Hill—which is itself a fundraiser for all of the chamber’s ongoing activities and programs—is because the increased costs for extra security and other measures would likely eat into their funding for those other activities.
The Morgan Hill Mushroom Festival, a fundraiser for student scholarships and local nonprofits, was canceled because the private security firm hired by organizers canceled their contract without leaving enough time to find a replacement, according to the Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras organization. Neither the organizer or the firm has said why the contract was canceled.
Will the parade route continue on its usual course with the road closure/impediment at Main & Hale?