Take that, COVID: Ely has its parade

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
Like the entire United States of America, the losses in Ely have piled up for the better part of four months.
Thanks to an invisible virus, we’ve lost businesses and jobs, the last 10 weeks of a school year, and a laundry list of community events, gatherings and festivals.
Our kids also lost their activities and sports and high school seniors had once-in-a-lifetime moments snatched away.
We couldn’t properly salute those who departed and those confined to nursing homes, assisted living or the hospital couldn’t even see their loved ones.
For several weeks, Ely was a virtual ghost town as many worked from home and evening drives and stops for takeout food served as highlights of drab days.
If Ely were a pro sports team, one could say it was in the midst of quite a losing streak.
Summer has clearly injected some life into the community, with visitors making for a busy Memorial Day weekend and June bringing both warm weather and more downtown activity, with restaurants, businesses and even a theater springing to life.
People have started to gather, with the Memorial Day program at Ely’s cemetery and a drive-in graduation ceremony and parade serving as a testimony for local spirit.
Yet one of Ely’s most special days, the Fourth of July, loomed as recently as a few weeks ago as one with a significant void.
While Ely bucked the trend of many larger communities and decided to go forward with its fireworks show, the annual parade was cancelled like so many others in Minnesota.
Ely without its parade? Another in the streak of COVID-generated losses it certainly seemed.
Yet it turned out to be one defeat Ely wasn’t quite ready to accept.
A group of Ely business owners and area residents, including one associated with this publication, went to work and looked for an alternative.
It took some wordsmithing and creativity but an alternative was found.
While parades don’t pass muster yet with the governor’s office and state officials - and reliable sources indicate both went out of their way to complain and push back against Ely’s event - there was nothing stopping the group from holding a “Patriotic March”
Ely had a similar procession just weeks before that ended in Whiteside Park, and the city’s legal counsel advised that the “Patriotic March” was a matter of citizens utilizing their First Amendment privileges.
Insurance was purchased and the event was on, despite a few nasty emails from bureaucrats bent on putting a stop to it.
Because of the virus, a few blocks were added to the route and there was ample room to be socially distant in an outdoor setting.
July 4 came with plenty of heat and a late-morning highlight.
Thanks to the efforts of Elyite and retired Air Force pilot Steve Saari, Ely was one of just two cities in Minnesota to enjoy a military jet flyover. The sounds and sights of two F-16s made it seem like this might indeed be a more normal Fourth of July.
Nearly two hours later provided even more confirmation.
My usual parade-watching spot on Sheridan Street wasn’t as full as it would be on a typical year, but it was by no means empty either. Clearly, there was an appetite for some normal in town, from residents and visitors.
I saw both old and new faces, locals as well as Elyites in town for the holiday and many who were simply visiting for the Fourth.
The sight of an Ely police squad car, followed by the veterans who make up the Ely Area Honor Guard, provided even more familiarity and the event was soon underway.
Circumstances prevented some of the usuals from participating. With school out for several months there was no chance to see the high school band and local dance troupes, who were sidelined for months, were not part of it either.
Perhaps because of the outside pressure, the city of Ely’s float with the mayor and council members was noticeably absent.
But politics didn’t keep other politicians away, attracting officials from both sides of the aisle.
One of Ely’s most well-connected Democrats, county commissioner Paul McDonald, rode along and waved to those gathered on the sidewalks.
Walking the route with a host of Republican supporters was U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who stopped to shake hands and pose for photos with well-wishers.
There were logging trucks and fire trucks, floats and bikes, veterans and, of course, the Ely Klown Band. Who doesn’t smile when the Klown Band comes by?
An Ely parade, ahem... march, isn’t complete without Zup’s Food Market and the local grocers didn’t disappoint. Along the route, the store distributed 2,500 packs of Wrigley’s gum, 7,000 bags of Old Dutch and Frito Lay chips, 4,000 packages of cookies, 2,500 freezie pops and 1,000 cartons of Land of Lakes orange juice.
And to top it off came a nod to current events, with store manager Jimmy Zupancich and his son Jim tossing roll after roll of toilet paper, about 3,000 in all, to those on the streets.
The toilet paper brought a bit of irony, given that shelves at Zup’s and elsewhere were bare at the onset of the pandemic.
Intended or unintended, the rolls of toilet paper along the route served as a subtle reminder of where we’ve been and served as a declaration of sorts.
It seemed fitting that on the 244th anniversary of the declaration of independence, Ely made its own statement.
Put the wordsmithing aside, Ely had as traditional a Fourth of July as any in Minnesota, starting with the flyover and continuing with, let’s say it, a parade.
The fireworks at night completed the winning triple play. And after a spring full of losses, it was a long-awaited and welcomed victory.