SAVANNAH, Ga. – Fountains in city parks and squares are gushing water dyed emerald green and hotel rooms are filling up as restaurants and bars make sure they stock extra beer and hire extra staff to serve it.
The St. Patrick's Day parade that's a 198-year-old tradition in Savannah will commence Thursday for the first time since 2019. Parade organizers and business owners expect a huge turnout after the coronavirus pandemic forced the parade to be canceled during the past two years, putting a huge damper on what's typically the most profitable holiday in Georgia's oldest city.
“Every event we go to, the excitement is there and you kind of 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 with their arms around each other saying, `Man, I haven’t seen you in two years!'"
Started in 1824 by Irish immigrants to Savannah, the St. Patrick's Day parade has ballooned into a sprawling celebration that's one of the South's largest street parties after Mardi Gras.
Hundreds of thousands of gaudy green revelers typically pack the sidewalks and manicured squares of Savannah's downtown historic district for the Irish holiday every March 17. Patrons start lining up for drinks at local bars as early as 7 a.m., and the party keeps going until after midnight.
City hall pulled the plug on the 2020 parade as COVID-19 infections were just starting to spread in Georgia, and again denied the parade a permit last year as the pandemic persisted and vaccines weren't yet available to all age groups.
This year, the celebration will for the most part return to normal. A mask mandate for public buildings, one of Savannah's last remaining restrictions, was allowed to expire March 1. Coronavirus infections are at their lowest point since November, and about half their rate a year ago.
“There’s a lot of people out on the streets already, and all signs point in a good direction,” said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city's tourism bureau.
He said hotels in down Savannah are filling up, and bookings are looking strong in the rest of the city and surrounding Chatham County. Many visitors are planning a long weekend, arriving Wednesday and leaving Sunday. And high gas prices don't appear to be discouraging visitors from hitting the road, Marinelli said.
“The reality of it is, there’s a lot of money sitting out there and people have not been able to do what they typically do," Marinelli said. "And they want to travel again.”
Officials aren't completely ignoring the virus, which has still averaged about 500 new daily infections in Chatham County for the past week. Organizers agreed to limit the number of parade floats, marching bands and other participating groups to 270, excluding dozens more to make the procession shorter than in past years.
And city officials withheld permits for a multi-day festival with beer tents and outdoor concerts on Savannah's riverfront. The event has drawn some of the biggest St. Patrick's Day crowds in the past. Mayor Van Johnson said the change was made mostly to curb public drunkenness and to boost business at bars and restaurants.
“I think we're going to be slammed. I’m really excited," said Melissa Swanson, owner of The Rail Pub in Savannah's bustling City Market entertainment district.
Swanson plans to open at 8 a.m. on St. Patrick's Day and serve a breakfast of eggs, sausage and green grits to early bird customers. She's hired 14 extra staff to work the holiday. While business has largely rebounded over the past year, she said, a busy St. Patrick's Day is still needed to help offset an extended pandemic shutdown in 2020.
“We’re still trying to make up for the 82 days that we were closed," Swanson said.
The pandemic 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 parade's return means roughly 30 family members — he and his siblings, their children and grandchildren — will be back marching in the procession. And they will make their annual detour to Rossiter Place, a street near the riverfront, 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 parade organizers marked with a graveside event last week.
“Everything will be back to normal and we’ll get to once again sing our song,” Rossiter said. “It’ll be a great day.”