Fountains in city parks and squares are spouting emerald-green tinted water and hotel rooms are filling up as restaurants and bars stock up on extra beer and hire extra staff for the to serve.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a 198-year-old tradition in Savannah, kicks off Thursday for the first time since 2019. Parade organizers and business owners expect a big turnout after the coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of the parade for the past two years. , putting a huge damper on what is typically the most profitable vacation in Georgia’s oldest city.
“Every event we attend, the excitement is there and you feel that buzz,” said John P. Fogarty, chairman of the private committee that organizes the parade. “We’re going to see a lot of smiles. We’re going to see people hugging and saying, ‘Dude, I haven’t seen you in two years!'”
Started in 1824 by Irish immigrants in Savannah, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has grown into a sprawling celebration that’s one of the biggest street parties in the South after Mardi Gras.
Hundreds of thousands of showy green revelers typically pack the sidewalks and manicured plazas of Savannah’s downtown historic district for the Irish holiday every March 17. Customers start lining up for drinks at local bars as early as 7am, and the party goes on until after midnight. .
City Hall ended the 2020 parade as COVID-19 infections were just beginning to spread in Georgia, and again denied the parade a permit last year as the pandemic persisted and vaccines failed. were not yet available for all age groups.
This year, the celebration will largely return to normal. A mask mandate for public buildings, one of Savannah’s last remaining restrictions, was allowed to expire on March 1. Coronavirus infections are at their lowest point since November and about half their rate a year ago.
“There are already a lot of people on the streets, and all the signs are pointing in the right direction,” said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city’s tourism board.
He said hotels in lower Savannah were filling up and reservations seemed strong in the rest of the city and surrounding Chatham County. Many visitors are planning a long weekend, arriving on Wednesday and departing on Sunday. And high gas prices don’t seem to be deterring visitors from hitting the road, Marinelli said.
“The reality is there’s a lot of money left over and people haven’t been able to do what they usually do,” Marinelli said. “And they want to travel again.”
Authorities aren’t completely ignoring the virus, which has still averaged about 500 daily new infections in Chatham County over the past week. Organizers agreed to limit the number of participating floats, marching bands and other groups to 270, excluding dozens more to make the procession shorter than in previous years.
And city officials have refused permits for a multi-day festival with beer tents and outdoor concerts by the Savannah River. The event drew some of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day crowds in the past. Mayor Van Johnson said the change was primarily aimed at reducing public drunkenness and boosting business in bars and restaurants.
“I think we are going to be slammed. I’m really excited,” said Melissa Swanson, owner of the Rail Pub in Savannah’s bustling City Market neighborhood.
Swanson plans to open at 8 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day and serve a breakfast of eggs, sausage and green oatmeal to early-rising customers. She hired 14 additional employees to work during the holidays. Although business has largely rebounded over the past year, she said, a busy St. Patrick’s Day is still needed to help offset a prolonged pandemic shutdown in 2020.
“We’re still trying to make up for the 82 days of closure,” Swanson said.
The pandemic has caused the Savannah parade to be canceled for the first time in nearly a century. Previously, the city had gone without a St. Patrick’s Day parade for several years during the Civil War, World War I and finally in 1921 during the Irish Revolution.
For Frank Rossiter Jr., the return of the parade means about 30 family members — he and his siblings, their children and grandchildren — will be back in the procession. And they’ll make their annual detour to Rossiter Place, a street by the river, while singing a special song about their family’s deep Irish roots in Savannah.
A retired pediatrician, Rossiter served as the parade’s grand marshal in 2008. His father, Francis P. Rossiter Sr., was the grand marshal 50 years ago in 1972, an anniversary for parade organizers marked by an event at the cemetery last week.
“Everything will be back to normal and we can sing our song again,” Rossiter said. “It will be a beautiful day.”