UPDATE, 10:10 p.m.: Just after 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, Governor Cuomo's office sent out an announcement that The St. Patrick's Day Parade and Celebration Committee has agreed to postpone the 2020 parade, which would have brought around 250,000 marchers and 1-2 million spectators to the streets of Manhattan during a pandemic.
Cuomo spoke with the organizers today ahead of making the final decision, and said, "Following those conversations, I recommended and the parade's leadership agreed to postpone this year's parade due to the high density and the large volume of marchers and spectators who attend. While I know the parade organizers did not make this decision lightly, public health experts agree that one of the most effective ways to contain the spread of the virus is to limit large gatherings and close contacts, and I applaud the parade's leadership for working cooperatively with us."
He added that, "While the risk to New Yorkers remains low and we want to avoid social and economic disruptions, we have an obligation to take action to contain the spread of this virus."
Parade Committee Chair Sean Lane said, "We look forward to celebrating the 259th St. Patrick's Day Parade with the entire city of New York at a later date."
Despite the fact that major cities including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh have canceled their St. Patrick's Day Parades in light of the spread of COVID-19 (now declared a pandemic), New York City has so far resisted the calls to cancel their big Manhattan parade, scheduled for Tuesday, March 17th. Two days ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio was adamant that there were no plans to cancel; earlier today, he stated that he was having conversations with organizers about it: “It’s not a slam dunk to say this is something to be instantly canceled. On the other hand, there are real concerns,” he said.
And at a press conference this afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had spoken to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose “strong recommendation” was to “reduce large gatherings” like the parade. “Why would you risk bringing thousands of people together knowing this is a virus that is easily communicable?” Cuomo asked. “St. Patrick’s Day is one of the great convenings of a large number of people. If you listen to the experts, they are saying you should not have a St. Patrick’s Day convening at this time, which I believe makes sense.” (Cuomo then launched into a historically bad Irish accent.)
A statement on the official website for the parade reads, "The NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade has been held every year since 1762. We have received no communications from the authorities concerning the possibitity [sic] of a postponement at this point. We recommend checking with your local health officials, government, and where appropriate, your personal physician for guidance."
Some lawmakers have begun to call for the parade to be cancelled as well, including Council Member Carlina Rivera:
There are a lot of compelling reasons why cancelling the parade, which attracts over 150,000 marchers and two million spectators every year, should be a no-brainer for the city. As The Atlantic wrote, there has only been one measure that's been effective against the coronavirus so far: extreme social distancing. Once China began cancelling all public gatherings and asking citizens to self-quarantine, the number of new cases leveled off; now, at least according to official statistics, "every day brings more news of existing patients who are healed than of patients who are newly infected."
According to Dr. Robyn Gershon, Clinical Professor of Epidemiology at NYU's School of Global Public Health, the latest data shows that coronavirus is most infectious before people have symptoms or realize they're sick. "That's a concern because then those people of course won't be staying home," she told Gothamist. "That's a little bit worrisome because if they peak their infectiousness right before they start to feel sick, they may be out and about, and on the subway and in movie theaters and stuff like that."
Another reason social distancing is so important to containing the virus: slowing down the rate of an epidemic may be the only way to ensure the health care system doesn't become overwhelmed by an explosion in new cases.
And then there are the historical examples we can draw from, such as the rally for the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive which took place in Philadelphia on September 28th, 1918. That single parade has been blamed for the mass spread of Spanish flu which debilitated the city over the coming months: “The head of Philadelphia’s Naval Hospital told the Public Ledger in the days before the parade: 'There is no cause for further alarm. We believe we have it well in hand.' So, the parade went forward. In the streets of downtown Philadelphia 200,000 people gathered to celebrate an impending allied victory in World War I. Within a week of the rally an estimated 45,000 Philadelphians were afflicted with influenza."
Dr. Gershon did note that outdoor events are far less dangerous than indoor ones: "Things like closed stadiums or an arena, where you're sitting in very tight close quarters with the same group of people for an hour or two—it seems to be the most readily spread when you're in close personal contact like that," she said. "When you're outdoors, you have plenty of fresh air, lots of dilution factor. That, to me, is much, much less risky."
However, the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade is not exactly a place where you can distance yourself from others, and is typically followed by a long day and night of drinking in packed bars.