SAVANNAH, Ga. - Savannah called off its St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time in nearly a century, bowing Wednesday to the coronavirus outbreak as Georgia’s governor requested $100 million in new state funding to combat the threat.
Georgia’s oldest city city follows Chicago, Boston and places in Ireland in scrapping the annual parades in a bid to stop the spread of the new virus strain. Savannah’s 196-year-old celebration is immensely profitable and popular, drawing up to half a million people or more.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s extraordinary step of asking state lawmakers to approve $100 million in additional funding to help the state combat the virus came as Georgia’s count of people testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus strain, reached 31 on Wednesday. Only 12 of those cases had been confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s the first time in 99 years that Savannah will forgo the popular parade begun in 1824 by Irish immigrants to Georgia’s oldest city. Since then, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day has become Savannah’s largest annual tourist attraction, with peak crowds sometimes estimated at 500,000 people or more.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson told a news conference he understood the decision would be unpopular with many. No members of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee that organizes the annual procession attended the mayor’s announcement.
“While the risk of Savannah remains low, we want to ensure we do everything we can to keep those living in our city safe and healthy,” Johnson said.
He emphasized that businesses in the city could remain open, saying he still expects thousands of visitors even without an official celebration. Savannah and surrounding Chatham County had not reported any coronavirus cases as of Wednesday.
With the March 17 holiday falling amid a work week this year, Savannah had organized a two-part celebration. It had been scheduled to open with a long weekend festival — Friday through Sunday — along the riverfront promenade of bars and souvenir shops. The parade was to follow on Tuesday, the actual holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day is typically the most lucrative holiday of the year for bars, restaurants and other businesses in Savannah’s downtown historic district. Now they’re bracing for a painful economic blow after having stocked up on extra food and beer as well as and gaudy green hats and T-shirts.
“You’ve got a lot of people who rely on that money,” said Melissa Swanson, owner of The Rail Pub in Savannah’s downtown historic district. “It’s part of your business plan.”
The last time Savannah went without a St. Patrick’s Day parade was 1921, when organizers shelved the event to show solidarity with Ireland in its war for independence from Britain.
According to a letter from Kemp to House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, $100 million in additional funding would be pulled from state reserves and would be used for preparedness and response efforts. Ralston said he “fully supports” Kemp’s request.
Events being derailed to contain the spread of this coronavirus include an 80th birthday party for civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, which had been planned for a large music hall in downtown Atlanta on March 28. The party was postponed to keep all attendees safe and healthy, Lewis’ representatives said in a statement Wednesday.
Georgia’s initial quarantine solution for people who test positive but can’t stay at home and don’t require hospitalization also got its first resident. The person is now staying at Hard Labor Creek State Park, where mobile housing units for quarantine have been set up in one section of the park, Kemp’s office said.
For most people, this coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, but for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 120,000 people have been infected worldwide, with more than 4,300 deaths, but the vast majority recover within weeks. The U.S. tally topped 1,000 cases on Wednesday, with at least 37 deaths.
Earlier Wednesday, some of the passengers from a cruise ship in California that carried people infected by the new coronavirus arrived at an air base in Georgia to begin a two-week quarantine.
The passengers arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta, base officials said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. The statement didn’t specify the number; they’ve said previously they were planning for dozens.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have full responsibility for all aspects of the quarantine, and Dobbins’ personnel will have no contact with the passengers, the base’s statement said. The passengers taken to Dobbins were screened before arrival, and none have been showing symptoms, it said.
The Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland on Monday after spending days off the California coast while quarantine plans were made and test kits dropped by military helicopters showed 21 people on board had COVID-19.
Martin reported from Atlanta. Associated Press Writer Ben Nadler in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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