Macy's on Monday said its 94th annual Thanksgiving Day parade will be virtual this year, "produced solely as a television event," in order to take precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. The show will air Nov. 26 nationwide on NBC, from 9:00 a.m. to noon in all time zones.
The retailer worked with New York City officials on the changes, including reducing the number of participants by about 75%, requiring social distancing and face masks, barring anyone younger than 18 and employing specialized vehicles in place of humans to handle the giant balloons.
Rather than following the traditional 2.5-mile parade route, the event will be staged in and around Herald Square, where Macy's flagship sits, according to a company press release.
Traditionally, not even rain can rain on Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, but the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced it to a virtual event. If the retailer was to host any semblance of its signature holiday celebration this year, some things had to be let go, most starkly the fact that many fewer people will be involved.
While the huge character balloons will return, for example, Macy's won't inflate them in public on Wednesday night — usually a draw for New Yorkers and tourists alike. The traditional 80 to 100 human balloon handlers are being replaced by specialized vehicles. And high school marching bands won't get to participate until, hopefully, next year; local professional marching and musical ensembles will take their place, the retailer said.
The parade launched in 1924, when it was just "a two block-long collection of Macy's colleagues dressed in whimsical clown outfits, playing instruments and adorning floats." This year will be the first time it will be produced only for television, per Macy's release.
Macy's noted that its altered July 4 celebration provided a template for working with the city in preserving some elements of its celebration while putting "in place enhanced health and safety practices that align with CDC guidelines, as well as local and state government protocols."
In remarks to reporters on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that, while the pandemic has prevented the iconic Macy's parade from being held as usual, it was imperative to make sure it would be held.
"[I]t's really important to keep these traditions continuing to make sure that that history is unbroken," he said, according to a transcript provided by the Mayor's office. "And we saw that on July 4th. We'll see that on Thanksgiving Day. We'll keep going forward, and then next year, again, I look forward to things coming back in all their greatness so we can enjoy them together in person again."
But holding the parade, if only in this reduced form, may be even more important for Macy's, and for the holiday shopping season more generally, according to Martin Ekechukwu, CEO of marketing and advertising agency WHTWRKS. Macy's itself capitalizes on it with related coupons and other enticements, leveraging the attention it gets to drive more people into its stores beyond the older consumers who usually are the ones shopping there, Ekechukwu says.
"The Macy's parade has traditionally generated a billion-plus impressions, if you think about people on the streets, on television, online," Ekechukwu said by phone. "If you don't have that, you're in danger of signaling that Black Friday is off. It's 100% imperative for Macy's. The parade signals Black Friday, it gets the country moving. It's a massive signal that shopping time is here."