Savannah bracing for over 30,000 Saint Patrick's Day tourists despite pandemic

Hotels are over 90% full this weekend even though the parade was canceled.

March 13, 2021, 6:01 AM

Saint Patrick's Day in Savannah, Georgia, is known for tourists, parades and bar hopping. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the city is bracing for 30,000 to 50,000 visitors on top of the regional "day-trippers," said Susan Broker, director of the city's office of special events, film and tourism.

"People are tired of being cooped up," Broker told ABC News.

Hotels are expected to be over 90% full this weekend. Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city's tourism office, attributes the crush of visitors to COVID-19 fatigue and more vaccinations. A major hotel along Savannah's riverfront said Friday it was "super slammed."

PHOTO: Sarah Hardilek uses a mechanical lift to hang green streamers for St. Patrick's Day at the Plant Riverside hotel and entertainment complex in Savannah, Ga., March 11, 2021.
Sarah Hardilek uses a mechanical lift to hang green streamers for St. Patrick's Day at the Plant Riverside hotel and entertainment complex in Savannah, Ga., March 11, 2021. Savannah officials have cancelled the annual St. Patrick's Day parade for a second year because of the coronavirus. Regardless, big crowds are expected for the Irish holiday, raising concerns that Savannah's celebration could cause an outbreak.
Russ Bynum/AP

Savannah's annual Saint Patrick's Day parade has been canceled for the second year due to the pandemic, which Marinelli said was the right call.

A large crowd cheers as the Savannah St. Patrick's Day Parade passes along Bull Street, March 16, 2013, in Savannah Ga.
Savannah Morning News via AP, FILE

Mayor Van Johnson has been "protective of the community through each of the holidays," Marinelli said. "He's really been very careful to follow the protocols and remind people that large groups together can be super-spreaders."

"The Saint Patrick's Day festival is a major economic driver for our community," Marinelli continued. "To not have it two years in a row takes a toll. ... The impact of the holiday is tens of millions of dollars."

"However," he said, "we support the mayor's decision."

Abigail Stevens, a Savannah resident of 18 years, loves to participate in the revelry.

"We're very much known as a party city for Saint Patrick's Day ... drinking, going to bars, dressing up," Stevens, 39, said. "We have a great, longstanding tradition and an Irish community. I think it's what makes Savannah really unique."

Thousands of visitors pack the historic riverfront to kick off the four-day celebration of St. Patrick's Day, March 14, 2015, in Savannah, Ga.
Stephen B. Morton/AP, FILE

With the pandemic ongoing, Stevens started a new tradition this year, inviting her neighbors to decorate their porches and yards (an idea she says she borrowed from New Orleans' "Yardi Gras" Mardi Gras celebration.)

About 40 homeowners are participating, she said. Stevens' house is already accessorized and others are too.

A home in Savannah, Georgia, decorated for Saint Patrick's Day.
Courtesy Joe Rogers
Savannah resident Abigail Stevens has invited neighbors to decorate their homes for Saint Patrick's Day.
Courtesy Abigail Stevens

Stevens said she's not especially worried about a COVID-19 spike after Saint Patrick's Day.

"It seems like most people are being careful and respectful," she said.

In preparation for the holiday, the city has tripled its COVID-19 Resource Team which acts as "the eyes and ears" of enforcement, Marinelli said. This weekend city staffers will head to popular streets and bars to disperse any large groups and hand out masks, he said.

Masks are required in public places and groups of 10 or more across Chatham County, which encompasses Savannah.

Visitors enjoy the illuminated water show as the sun goes down at the Plant Riverside District, March 10, 2021, in Savannah, Ga.
Savannah Morning News via USA Today Network

"We are able to enforce our local mandate with tickets," Broker said, adding that the fire department is checking in with restaurants ahead of time to remind them of social distancing protocols.

After the tourists leave town, Broker said city officials and the health department will be working together to closely monitor COVID-19 cases.

"We are a global community and we have to ensure that whatever we do, we promote healthy and safe behaviors that minimize any spread of COVID-19," she said. "So please, if you're planning to come to Savannah, please do so ... but remember that you are one person who has the opportunity to affect many."

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