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Boston cancels St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston amid coronavirus fears

A pipes-and-drum band marches in the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston last year.
A pipes-and-drum band marches in the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston last year.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston scheduled for Sunday has been canceled amid rising numbers of coronavirus infections in Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Monday.

“This decision is being made out of an abundance of caution to ensure that we are doing what is needed to keep the residents of Boston safe and healthy,” Walsh said in a news release that described the decision as a collaboration with state and city representatives and David Falvey of the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council.

The spread of coronavirus has prompted the cancellation of mass gatherings such as concerts and sporting events throughout the world in recent weeks.

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Officials said late last week there were no plans at that time to cancel mass gatherings like the parade and the Boston Marathon, which is scheduled for April 20.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a South Boston native, said the decision to cancel the parade wasn’t a political one.

“It is an informed public health decision,” he said. “You can never be too cautious dealing with Covid-19.”

He added, “We need to empower and support the public health experts we have in this field to help us make these decisions to keep the risks as low as possible.”

The parade has been canceled in years past, Flaherty said.

“The town has survived,” he said. “And so have the Irish.”

The parade was canceled at least twice because of World War I and again in 1920 because of icy street conditions, according to “South Boston on Parade,” a history of the event. Organizers cancelled the parade in 1994 after the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston won the right to participate in it.

The parade was postponed in 1956, 1978, and 1993 because of snow.

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US Congressman Stephen Lynch, another Southie native, said in a statement Monday night that he had participated in the discussion with Walsh, Flaherty, and others, and he agreed “that cancelling the parade and the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at the Convention Center were the correct decisions.”

“In the past, on a day with good weather we have seen crowds of over a million people converge on our neighborhood to celebrate the feast of St Patrick,” Lynch continued. “Couple that with the huge number of house parties — it would have put a lot of people at risk of exposure.”

Dave Falvey, commander and president of the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, said a tremendous amount of work goes into organizing and fundraising for the parade that has been an annual March rite in Southie for more than a century. The parade had more than 100 organizations participating this year, he said.

“There’s a lot of disappointment,” said Falvey, a 37-year-old South Boston resident. “That’s not to say I’m not in support of” the decision to cancel.

“These are things that are out of our control,” he said. “You kind of have to make responsible decisions given the situation.”

Last year, the parade drew about a million spectators, he said.

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, said earlier Monday that it would be irresponsible of the city to allow the parade to happen. Large gatherings, he said, are “classic ways to spread viruses.”

“Outdoors is maybe a little less dangerous than indoors, but there are still lots of people touching each other, being close together, coughing on each other,” he said.

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Other large gatherings should stop, he said. Celtics and Bruins games should be canceled, or the teams should consider playing before no crowds, he said.

“We need to protect our health care system from becoming overloaded,” said Lipsitch.

Lipsitch said that the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections is being held virtually because of coronavirus concerns. He also said that another annual conference, a gathering of infectious disease modelers, slated for next month in Seattle, has been cancelled.

“The people who know about these topics are taking them very seriously,” he said. “We would be wise to follow their lead.”

Lipsitch cited Philadelphia’s response to the 1918 flu. That city waited too long to respond during that epidemic and faced some of its worst effects in the country in part because of that, he said.

Smithsonian has reported that in the midst of that epidemic more than a century ago, a Philadelphia World War I parade drew 200,000 people.

“Two days after the parade, the city’s public health director Wilmer Krusen, issued a grim pronouncement: ‘The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments [army camps],’” that outlet reported in 2018.

As of Monday afternoon, Massachusetts has at least 41 total coronavirus cases, according to the state Department of Public Health.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the March 17 St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin — an event that generally draws a huge crowd including thousands from overseas — has been cancelled.

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A rugby match between Ireland and Italy slated for last Saturday in Dublin was also cancelled because of coronavirus concerns.

Material from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press was used in this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.