Savannah, Georgia is bracing for overcrowding after more than 50,000 tourists descended on the city to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Massive crowds of revellers began gathering at bars and restaurants in the city over the weekend as a six-day St Patrick’s Day festival run by owners of a new hotel and nightlife development began on Friday.
Savannah is known for holding the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the South but there are fears the holiday could become a ‘super spreader’ event during the pandemic.
City-run celebrations, including an annual parade to mark the occasion, have been cancelled for the second year running amid the ongoing pandemic but thousands of people are still expected to hit the streets of downtown Savannah on Wednesday.
Mayor Van Johnson said city officials gave out an estimated 18,000 masks over the weekend and that city officials and police officers will be on hand throughout the week to help enforce Covid-19 restrictions.
‘We were trying to avoid big groups of people from congregating anywhere. We prefer crowds that are moving and not really staying in one place, hence the parade committee and the city saying we weren’t having a festival,’ Fox 28 Savannah reported Johnson as saying.
The mayor acknowledged the balancing act of keeping people safe without completely scrapping St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, which are essential for the city’s economy.
‘We’re not trying to be killjoys, we’re not trying to stop people from having a good time, but at the end of the day when people have left here, savannah has to survive,’ he said.
On Saturday night, huge crowds were seen swarming the Plant Riverside, a new $375 million hotel and nightlife development whose owners are promoting a six-day festival with live music, a large fountain synchronized to Irish music and green lights illuminating the complex built from a shuttered power plant.
Johnson described the festival plans were ‘a slap in the face’ to the city’s efforts to curb coronavirus infections.
The Irish holiday typically packs Savannah’s manicured squares and magnolia-shaded sidewalks with thousands of gaudy green revellers on March 17.
But with Georgia still reporting at least 1,000 new COVID-19 infections daily and ranking last in U.S. vaccinations, city officials pulled the plug on this year’s parade – as they did a year ago when the pandemic was starting.
Likewise, Savannah City Hall withheld a permit for the sprawling St. Patrick’s festival that’s typically a magnet for beer-fueled revelry along the city’s riverfront promenade of bars and souvenir shops.
But sidelining Savannah’s largest gatherings hasn’t stopped the party. The city’s top tourism official says hotels in the downtown historic district could be 90 percent full this weekend – the busiest they’ve been in the past year.
‘People know that Savannah is a St. Patrick’s Day destination, they know the holiday is in the middle of the week and they´re going to come the weekend before and after,’ said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city’s tourism bureau. He added that ‘COVID fatigue and pent up demand’ for vacations are helping drive visitation.
Dr. Lawton Davis, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s coastal district, said big crowds filled with visitors could also spread coronavirus variants that otherwise haven’t come to Savannah.
‘Anytime there’s a big influx of people from elsewhere, or just big crowds that are going to be partying to some extent, I get concerns that we’re going to set ourselves up for a super spreader event,’ Davis said.
Organizers of the Plant Riverside events insist they can safely manage a big street party. Mark Castriota, the development’s managing director, said its staff will ‘strongly encourage all guests to wear face masks and to practice social distancing.’
‘We want to provide an opportunity for people to have fun in a safe environment as part of a new St. Patrick´s Day tradition in Savannah,’ Castriota said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. ‘We take safety very seriously and will encourage attendees to comply with all City of Savannah requirements and CDC guidelines.’
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s standing emergency order prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people unless social distancing is observed.
Restaurants can open without capacity restrictions, but must distance tables. Bars and nightclubs can admit at least 50 people without restriction.
Mayor Johnson has said anyone caught breaking a mask mandate could face possible $500 fines from police.
The St. Patrick’s Day celebration arrives as Georgia ranks last in the nation for vaccinating its population against the virus, with just 17.5 percent of adults statewide having received at least one shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
City Hall hasn’t been alone in pushing for increased caution during St. Patrick’s Day events. The private committee that organizes the city’s 197-year-old parade opted to hold some events without crowds and stream them online – including Friday’s ceremony to dye fountain waters in Forsyth Park a glittering emerald green, which usually draws hundreds of cheering onlookers.
Despite the lingering health risks, Savannah’s hotels and shops, bars and restaurants are hungry for tourism dollars after a punishing 2020. Marinelli of Visit Savannah said business began rebounding last summer, but taxes collected on hotel and motel stays in Savannah plummeted by 50 percent overall in 2020.
‘Last year hurt a lot,’ Marinelli said. ‘We really need this one badly.’
Meanwhile, other cities across the States are adapting their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
A largely virtual St. Patrick’s Day is planned for New York City on Wednesday, one year after the annual parade celebrating Irish heritage became one of the city’s first coronavirus casualties.
Although the city’s usual huge parade with floats and marching bands has been cancelled, a few dozen people are expected to march at 6 a.m. to keep the tradition alive, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Then at 8:30 a.m. there will be a live broadcast of the St. Patrick’s Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, according to the parade organizers’ website.
A virtual parade featuring clips of marching groups from past years will follow at 10 a.m. and an hourlong show streaming on Facebook at 11 a.m. will include performances by singers Andy Cooney and Moya Brennan.
Multitudes of people usually line Fifth Avenue for New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, which traces its roots to the 1760s.
St. Patrick’s Day is also usually big business for the city’s taverns and restaurants, and a major date on the calendar for tourism.
This year, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, celebrations will be muted.
Establishments that serve alcohol can only do so if they also serve food. Closing time is 11 p.m. Taverns and pubs, like all restaurants, can only fill 35 per cent of their seats.
That will rise to 50 per cent two days after the holiday.
People staying home can take in a 5 p.m. program on the Catholic Faith Network featuring parade leaders and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and TV station WNBC will broadcast ‘St. Patrick’s Day: A Celebration For All’ at 7 p.m.
Chicago also cancelled its annual parade but went ahead with its tradition of dyeing the Chicago River bright green.
Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot abruptly canceled the city’s parades and the river dyeing just days before they were due to take place.
She called off the parades again this year due to the lingering pandemic and said the river would once again not be dyed.
But a Lightfoot spokesman said in a statement that the city opted ‘to honor the long-standing tradition’ and authorized its partners, the Chicago Plumbers Union Local 130, to dye the river.
The city has celebrated with this unique tradition since 1962.
Boston has also cancelled its parade for a second year running but has invited those who want to honor the holiday to take a self-guided walk on the Irish Heritage Trail.