Savannah worries revelers may still come to town even after canceling St. Patrick’s parade

SAVANNAH, Ga. — The South’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade is canceled, as is the boozy riverside festival that accompanies it. Regardless, Savannah is preparing for its largest crowds since the yearlong pandemic began — an influx that officials worry could bring a surge in coronavirus infections.

The Irish holiday typically means Savannah’s manicured squares and magnolia-shaded sidewalks are packed with thousands of gaudy green revelers on March 17. But with Georgia still reporting at least 1,000 new COVID-19 infections daily while 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.

“To advertise this huge festival with the intent of drawing people to a particular space in the middle of a pandemic, when we know social distancing and mask wearing is not going to be enforced, is horrible as far as I’m concerned,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said of a nightlife complex's plan to hold a St. Patrick's Day event. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton, AP)

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% full this weekend — the busiest they’ve been in the past year.

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“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.

Meanwhile, the owner of a new $375 million hotel and nightlife development that covers 1/4 of a mile (0.4 kilometers) along the riverfront is promoting a festival beginning Friday with live music, a large fountain synchronized to Irish music and green lights illuminating the complex built from a shuttered power plant.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said the planned festivities at the Plant Riverside development are “a slap in the face” to the city’s efforts to curb coronavirus infections by foregoing events that draw big crowds.

“To advertise this huge festival with the intent of drawing people to a particular space in the middle of a pandemic, when we know social distancing and mask wearing is not going to be enforced, is horrible as far as I’m concerned,” Johnson said in an interview.

The hotel and entertainment complex hosting the big festival sits on 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of private property, so it doesn’t require a city event permit. Still, the mayor said he could use police to block public access to city-owned routes to the festival property if crowds pose a public health risk.

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