San Antonians may have gotten used to the annual fireworks show at the Tower of the Americas each New Year’s Eve. But on Thursday night, the show will move away from downtown and solely to a virtual audience.

The fireworks show and New Year’s Eve event at Hemisfair has been put together by the San Antonio Parks Foundation every year since 1995. The foundation grappled with providing a celebration for everyone to enjoy while keeping people safe during the coronavirus pandemic, said Mary Jane Verette, president and CEO of the foundation. After canceling its annual Fourth of July fireworks show at Woodlawn Lake Park, the foundation realized it needed a backup plan for New Year’s Eve.

“At the beginning of the year we really assumed that by year end, life would be back to normal. … We really were hoping that we could do an event [for New Year’s Eve],” she said. “We looked into the various alternatives to doing something that was socially distant, maybe ticketed. But then the second wave began to hit at Thanksgiving.”

The foundation originally hoped to keep the fireworks downtown and simply broadcast it live from there as usual but knew there would be no way to keep people from gathering at the Tower of the Americas if the event was held there.

“We realized that there was really not a safe way to launch fireworks from the Tower without endangering the public or creating a superspreader event,” Verette said. “Even though the fireworks may only last for 15 minutes, they still would be gathering. In our discussions with city leaders, we resolved that it was just not in the best interest of the community.”

On Friday, the fireworks show will still be shown live on TV but from an undisclosed location in Bexar County, Verette said. Dallas-based music and dance group Mélange will return to the stage with live musical performances for the Celebrate SA show, but everything else about the program is pre-recorded. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was one of the local leaders who gave an interview for the broadcast, which was special considering that 2020 marked the centennial of Bexar County Parks, Verette said.

“Sadly, the celebration of the centennial of Bexar County Parks was overshadowed by COVID,” Verette said. “And so what we dedicated this evening to on the 31st is to tell that story of [the centennial] and how proud our county is of these wonderful parks that they have for the community.”

Though the County was unable to celebrate its parks system’s centennial as it would have without the pandemic, the work of improving county parks continues into 2021, Wolff said.

“There’s a lot of issues [about county parks] that we hope to take up next year,” Wolff said.

On New Year’s Eve, Wolff said he plans to stay at home with his wife, relax, “and maybe watch a movie.” He said he supported the San Antonio Parks Foundation’s decision to convert the fireworks show to a virtual format, especially following a busy holiday season.

“We’re in a surge in COVID, and we haven’t seen the effects of Christmas yet, but we’ll start seeing that after the weekend,” he said. “And then New Year’s presents a threat in itself if people congregate into larger groups and so we’re worried about that too. Anything virtual would be good.”

Wolff recognized the difficulty of the holiday season during the pandemic, as people were discouraged from hosting large gatherings that often accompany Christmas and Thanksgiving. Wolff only saw the two youngest of his eight grandchildren on Christmas, he said, and delivered their presents from a distance.

“I think everybody else is going through the same thing we are,” he said. “It was a different kind of Christmas – one that’s not as probably as joyous as other years – but we’ll get through this. Next Christmas will be a great Christmas.”

The New Year’s Eve event Celebrate SA will be broadcast on News 4 San Antonio on Friday from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.