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Sinn Fein Society members Bill Bradley, left, and John Lowenthal, right, walk the sidewalk of the St. Patrick's Day parade route in downtown Savannah, Ga., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Last week, Savannah's mayor announced the city's 196-year-old St. Patrick's Day parade was called off due to coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — There were no bagpipers, no marching bands with booming drums, and no cheering crowds. Just two men in green blazers carrying a large Irish flag as they trudged along largely abandoned sidewalks.

"It's really strange," said Bill Bradley, carrying the flag on its long wooden pole. "It's almost like a dream, like living in some kind of nightmare."

Both Bradley and his friend John Lowenthal have celebrated St. Patrick's Day in Savannah since they were children. The March 17 holiday and its parade of pipe bands, classic cars decorated with shamrocks and gaudy floats is by far the city's most popular holiday, drawing thousands annually.

But Savannah's cobblestone streets and oak-shaded squares were quiet Tuesday morning as fear of spreading the new coronavirus caused the city to cancel its St. Patrick's Day parade for the first time in 99 years. Bradley and Lowenthal, members of one of Savannah's Irish social societies, opted to walk the parade route on their own.

A smattering of visitors and local restaurants, only some of them wearing anything green, strolled sidewalks that typically would be filled with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the Irish holiday. Bars and coffee shops had their doors open, with no lines and plenty of seating inside.

Matt Garappolo opened his bar, Pinkie Master's Lounge, at 7 a.m. but soon locked up again, went home and didn't reopen until about 10 a.m. He had one customer sipping a beer in a corner seat.

"It's dead today. It's going to be quiet," said Garappolo, who worries he may be forced to close in the coming days as the virus continues to spread in the U.S. "I'm just glad to have business before we're shut down."

The Irish holiday came as Americans were being urged to avoid large groups of people, refrain from eating at restaurants and put off discretionary travel in an effort to blunt new infections. St. Patrick's Day celebrations had also been canceled in New York, Boston, Chicago and in Ireland.

Tuesday afternoon, the Georgia Department of public health had reported 146 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. That is up from 121 on Monday. Just one death had been blamed on the illness. No infections have been reported in Savannah or surrounding Chatham County.

In an update on the state's response, Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday there's a concern a sharp increase in infections could fill Georgia hospitals to capacity and leave them with supply shortages. He said the state is currently awaiting orders of large quantities of protective gear — including 10,000 gloves and 100,000 face masks — to equip medical professionals and first responders.

The University of Georgia and Georgia Southern University announced they were canceling their spring commencement ceremonies. UGA's events had been set for May 8 and Georgia Southern's had been set for May 8 and 9.

"We realize that the cancellation of spring commencement is extremely disappointing," UGA said in an announcement on its website. "Therefore, we are exploring other ways to honor our graduates and will communicate when those plans are known."

Georgia's public colleges and universities, as well as most private colleges, have in recent days instructed students to go home to complete remaining classwork online.

State officials are also creating a site for 20 new isolation trailers at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of Atlanta. Kemp said a site already established for isolating patients at a state park in Morgan County has just one person under observation. Another patient isolated there has been released.

Savannah city officials a week ago pulled the plug on Tuesday's parade and a St. Patrick's festival planned for last weekend. A number of visitors came anyway, and some bars and restaurants reported healthy crowds Friday and Saturday.

Brooke Cimmino, 29, of Orlando, Florida, and a friend stuck with their plans for an extended St. Patrick's Day trip to Savannah. They ate at popular restaurants over the weekend without reservations or waiting in line. Their downtown hotel was mostly empty.

On Tuesday morning, they sipped beer with about eight other patrons inside Bay Street Blues, a bar near Savannah's riverfront that normally packed to capacity on St. Patrick's Day because it's on the parade route. Cimmino said they never considered canceling their trip.

"We can't just stop living our lives," she said. "I understand a need to be safe. But it's not like the world's ending."

Some drive-thru testing sites opened as early as Monday in Georgia, including ones in Valdosta, Albany and Columbus, although news outlets report that in most cases, people need to have an appointment. Other sites could open as soon as Wednesday.

While Georgia's 1.8 million public school children are out of school by order of the governor, he has not ordered the nearly 4,500 state-licensed child care centers to close. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning was still counting how many centers were open and closed Tuesday, but had found 764 that had closed so far. The state says it's up to program directors to decide whether to close.

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Associated Press writers Ben Nadler and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

 

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