‘Potential Uncertainty': As COVID-Era Persists, Balboa Park's December Nights Will Continue as Modified Event in 2021

The drive-thru version of December Nights is the COVID-era iteration of Balboa Park’s biggest annual event; that's how it went last year and it looks like it'll continue that way in 2021

With COVID-19 still very much a part of our lives and the "uncertainty" of it all, the City of San Diego said Thursday that, as a precaution, Balboa Park's December Nights would happen this holiday season as a modified event, just like it did in 2020.

The city tweeted the news just after 10 a.m., writing: "Out of an abundance of caution, the City has made the decision to expand upon the successful 2020 December Nights drive through experience for this year's event. Our Special Events team is currently working on concepts and more details will be shared in the coming months."

The city also posted this message about 2021 December Nights on its website:

"What's in store for 2021? Due to the potential uncertainty of public health conditions at the time of December Nights, and out of an abundance of caution, the City has made the decision to expand upon the 2020 successful drive-through experience for this year's event. The City's Special Events & Filming Department is currently working on concepts and more details will be shared in the coming months."

NBC 7 is reaching out to the city to see if any additional details are available.

The 2020 Drive-Thru December Nights: How Did It Work?

In December 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic continued in San Diego County and a second lockdown was about to take effect due to a surge in local COVID-19 cases, December Nights -- the longtime holiday tradition at Balboa Park -- shifted gears.

Instead of hosting the event as a large-scale, in-person event, organizers morphed it into a scaled-down version of its former self that incorporated one big pandemic-era trend: The drive-thru.

Balboa Park’s yearly tradition Taste of December Nights will continue on this year but with some new twists to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Instead of the normal, weekend-long event in the heart of the San Diego landmark, the modified, 2020 version was dubbed “Taste of December Nights,” and took place over three nights in the Inspiration Point parking lot near Balboa Park.

The drive-thru 2020 event featured 20+ food trucks and vendors offering the international dishes that are popular at the traditional December Nights.

Visitors were able to roll through the 2020 event from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day – in a “drive-thru setting” – and pick up food. At the time, coronavirus restrictions called for all visitors to remain in their cars. COVID-19 safety protocols were enforced, including the wearing of face masks. Bikes, scooters, and walk-up visitors were not be allowed.

The 2020 event took place about 10 days before the coronavirus vaccine arrived in San Diego County.

Balboa Park’s holiday tradition – December Nights – won’t happen as normal next month due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2020, December Nights was the final San Diego event of the pandemic-riddled year to be modified in a way that better suited the pandemic times. Other tentpole events like San Diego Comic-Con International and San Diego Pride shifted to smaller, virtual versions of themselves over the summer of 2020. San Diego Beer Week in 2020 did the same. Some local 2020 events – like the Wonderfront Music Festival and Fourth of July fireworks – were canceled altogether due to concerns over the coronavirus.

Much like this year, the City of San Diego was trying to figure out the fate of the 2020 December Nights event for months before it took place -- first kicking around plans in August 2020.

By the time the holidays rolled around, it had been "reimagined" as the food-centric drive-thru dubbed Taste of December Nights. The city said it was saddened not to be able to give the "beloved gift" of the event to the region in its traditional form in 2020 due to the pandemic.

According to the city, though, the modified version still came through with the holiday cheer. The city said more than 4,000 cars and over 10,000 people came through the 2020 December Nights drive-thru event to enjoy food and drinks from around the world.

A Look Back: December Nights, In Its Traditional Form

December Nights would’ve turned 44 this year.

In its traditional form, the event signals the start of the holidays, and typically attracts more than 350,000 visitors to Balboa Park over the two-day, multi-cultural celebration of the season.

The event features festive, family-friendly activities and live music, arts and crafts, and photos with Santa Claus. Twinkling lights and holiday decorations are strung around the park and a popular food zone at the International Cottages tops off the merrymaking. Traditional December Nights even offers free entry into select Balboa Park museums.

The event typically takes place the first weekend of December, so here’s to looking forward to 2022.

NBC 7's Dave Summers caught up with the December Nights crowd which included guests young and old from San Diego and beyond.

August 2021: COVID-19 in San Diego County

San Diego County fully reopened on June 15 and many of San Diego's big summer events (Pride, Del Mar Racing) made a mini comeback -- also as modified, pandemic-safe versions in 2021.

But COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated San Diegans have continued to increase over the past few weeks.

NBC 7 is staying on top of the county's latest COVID data here.

As of Aug. 10, county public health officials said there had been 309,406 COVID-19 cases in San Diego County since officials began tracking cases in mid-February 2020. There had been 3,818 coronavirus-related deaths in the region.

As of Aug. 11, The county's coronavirus vaccination dashboard shows that 2,040,609 San Diego residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 2,330,157 San Diego residents have gotten at least one dose of the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

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