NEW YORK – St. Patrick’s Day celebrations across the country are back after a two-year hiatus, including the nation’s largest in New York City, in a sign of growing hope that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic may be over.
The holiday served as a key marker in the outbreak's progression, with parades celebrating Irish heritage among the first big public events to be called off in 2020. An ominous acceleration in infections quickly cascaded into broad shutdowns.
The full-fledged return of New York’s parade on Thursday coincided with the city’s wider reopening. Major mask and vaccination rules were recently lifted.
The city's famed Fifth Avenue was awash with green, as hordes of revelers took to sidewalks amid damp skies to take part in the tradition for the first time in two years.
Kathy Brucia, 65, who is Irish and was clad in green, including a shamrock on her cheek, has been attending the parade for more than three decades — except the past two years.
“The pandemic,” she said as the first marching band passed by Thursday morning. “I don’t think it’s over. But I think a lot of people feel like, wow, we could finally go to a parade and not worry. But I think everybody has to worry.”
The day held great importance for a city still reeling from the outbreak.
“Psychologically, it means a lot,” said Sean Lane, the chair of the parade’s organizing group. “New York really needs this.”
Mike Carty, the Ireland-born owner of Rosie O’Grady’s, a restaurant and pub in the Theater District, agreed.
“This is the best thing that happened to us in two years,” he said. “We need the business, and this really kicked it off.”
The South’s largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration made a big comeback in Savannah, Georgia, where Irish immigrants and their descendants have held parades since 1824. After nearly two centuries, the holiday has become Savannah’s most profitable tourist draw, a street party for hundreds of thousands still thirsty after Mardi Gras.
Tori Purvis, 46, arrived before dawn to claim a spot near the start of the parade along with her 3-year-old son, Tristan, still wearing his pajamas decorated with leprechaun hats and rainbows. Purvis said she’s been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah since childhood, and the only years she recalls not showing up were 2020 and 2021 when the pandemic forced the parade to be canceled.
“I’m not against masks or anything, but it’s nice to see people outside without masks and enjoying their time,” Purvis said. “It’s like a little bit of normalcy is coming back.”
Over the weekend, Chicago dyed its river green, after doing so without much fanfare last year and skipping the tradition altogether during the initial virus onslaught.
Boston, home to one of the country’s largest Irish enclaves, resumes its annual parade Sunday after a two-year absence.
Some communities in Florida, one of the first states to reopen its economy, were also bringing their parades back. The state chose St. Patrick's Day two years ago to shutter restaurants, bars and nightclubs — a dramatic move by the Republican and which underscored the fear and uncertainty of the time.
New York’s parade — the largest and oldest of them all, first held in 1762 — runs 35 blocks along Fifth Avenue, past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and along Central Park.
It's being held as the city emerges from a discouraging bout with the highly contagious omicron variant, which killed more than 4,000 people in New York City in January and February.
New infections and hospitalizations have declined since the surge, prompting city officials to green-light the procession.
On Thursday, Mayor Eric Adams began his pub crawl early, raising a pint of Guinness while visiting one of his city's Irish establishments.
He likened the pandemic to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“COVID is not terrorism, but it brought terror,” the mayor told radio station WAXQ-FM. “And now we’re at the 9/12 moment when we march down in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. We’re getting up and we’re saying New York is stronger, better and we’re ready to get back to our city being open.”
To keep the tradition going, organizers in 2020 and 2021 quietly held small parades on St. Patrick's Day, right around sunrise, when the streets were empty.
Thousands of people showed up for this year's parade, even as many New Yorkers remain skittish about massive, potentially virus-spreading public events.
The holiday commemorates the death of the patron saint of Ireland more than 15 centuries ago but has evolved into a money-making observance of Irish culture for restaurants and pubs.
But there was solemnity, too. Thursday's procession paused to remember the fallen — including those who perished during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, first responders killed in the line of duty and the thousands of pandemic casualties.
The Bishop Edmund Whalen, speaking outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, expressed kinship with the people of Ukraine.
“We Irish know all too well the injustice of domination and oppression from those who sought to impose their rule over us,” he said. “And so we pray for the people of Ukraine who suffer this day from the injustice of war.”
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum contributed from Savannah, Georgia.