SAVANNAH, Ga. — It’s party time in Savannah, but no party tents, coolers, folding chairs or outside drinks other than bottled water will be allowed in a dozen square blocks of downtown during Vice President Mike Pence’s weekend visit for the St. Patrick’s Day parade that draws huge crowds to Georgia’s oldest city.
Some locals are worried the security measures will throttle any enjoyment at the heart of the spirited Irish celebration.
Police and local officials on Wednesday outlined strict limitations that will be imposed along a relatively short portion of the 2.25-mile (3.6-kilometer) parade route during Pence’s visit Saturday. But it’s an area popular with parade goers that includes City Hall and two of downtown Savannah’s oak-shaded public squares.
“I’ve gone from ‘it’s St. Patrick’s Day and I’m excited’ to ‘it’s St. Patrick’s Day and I’m in the enhanced security zone,'” said Bonnie Walden, owner of Bay Street Blues, a bar located inside the area being secured for Pence’s trip.
“I’m just so worried about the fun. Where’s the party?” said Walden. She’s concerned potential customers won’t jump through the security hoops to reach her bar during the parade.
Walden isn’t the only one in Savannah befuddled about the timing of Pence’s trip. He’s coming during Savannah’s single busiest tourist event all year.
Irish immigrants to Savannah and their descendants have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a parade for 194 years. The March 17 holiday has grown into one of the South’s biggest street parties after Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Parade organizers expect 500,000 or more people to cram Savannah’s downtown historic district Saturday.
At the Wright Square Cafe, within view of the leg of the parade being secured for Pence, owner Gary Hall said he wonders how many people will put up with standing in line to pass through metal detectors to reach areas where they won’t be able to bring along their own picnics, booze or even a chair to sit in.
“It’s a big disruption,” said Hall, who plans to sell coffee, sandwiches and salads during the parade. “To me it’s a super unknown — it will be ungodly busy or dead. And for people who have been coming here for generations, it’s all being upended for one person’s enjoyment.”
Details of what Pence will do during the parade haven’t been released.
Savannah officials insisted Wednesday they don’t want to be St. Patrick’s Day party poopers. Businesses inside the secured zone can still open and sell alcohol and food. Food trucks will operate on the two being squares affected. Extra bleachers will be set up to give parade goers a place to sit.
Still, parade watchers and business owners alike won’t be allowed inside the secured zone until 7 a.m. — a time when many Savannah bars and restaurants like to be open on St. Patrick’s Day. And anyone entering the zone must pass through metal detectors that will be set up at six different points.
“We’re doing everything we can to minimize any inconvenience,” Savannah Police Chief Mark Revenew told reporters Wednesday. “At the end of the day, this is a great honor for Savannah.”
The Collins Quarter restaurant and bar downtown had 80 people reserve a spot at $200 apiece to watch the parade from chairs on the sidewalk while indulging in an open bar and unlimited food.
It was a big success last year, said restaurant barista Patrick Bransfield, but managers are confused as to whether Pence’s visit and security prohibitions on chairs will allow them to offer the same outdoor dining-and-drinking package Saturday.
“We’ve had people calling and we don’t how to respond,” Bransfield said. “There’s no way 80 out of 80 people are going to say, ‘That’s OK. We’re still going to come.'”