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Students, festival organizers make masks a choice as Canada nears St. Patrick’s Day

Return of the Irish holiday doesn’t come without risks, even though provinces have lifted mandates
A colourful float makes its way down Ste. Catherine St. during the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Montreal, Sunday, March 22, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are set to return this week, but festival organizers and student unions say people should party with caution.

Canada’s largest celebrations of the holiday were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 because of pandemic-related health risks. Vaccine and masking mandates are slowly being lifted across the country and many parades and festivals are going ahead, with Montreal’s event leading the charge in rejuvenating festivities.

Vancouver and Montreal are home to some of Canada’s largest Irish populations, and with COVID-19 protocols being lifted in many jurisdictions, festival organizers are confident that celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day can return to an adjusted normal.

The United Irish Societies of Montreal will have 500 people participating in their parade and thousands of spectators are expected to gather on the streets, according to Kevin Tracey, the group’s vice-president of public relations.

The organization puts together Canada’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, but had to cancel it for two years in a row because of the pandemic.

This time, people might choose to not wear a mask because it’s the first time in two years they haven’t had any restrictions, Tracey said.

“I think it’s going to happen just because it’s the first event that’s open. We were the first ones cancelled and we’re the first ones back,” he said.

But the return of the Irish holiday doesn’t come without risks, even though many provinces have lifted vaccination mandates for public gatherings. Ontario is set to drop its masking requirement on March 21, shortly after St. Patrick’s Day on Thursday, while Quebec dropped its vaccination requirement earlier this week.

Ottawa police are worried that students — some of the most enthusiastic partygoers — are going to celebrate without masks like they did during last year’s annual party following a university football match known as the Panda Game. The party violated some COVID-19 protocols, said community police officer Sebastien Lemay.

“We’ve all been there. We’ve all been students wanting to have a good time,” Lemay said.

Still, some student organizations are requesting their peers to wear masks and gather only in small groups.

“It’s students’ own decision whether they want to follow COVID-19 protocols or not. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to stop them,” said Callie Ogden, vice-president of community engagement at the Carleton University Students’ Association.

The student group is working with the police to encourage students to follow COVID-19 protocols while celebrating, even if that means cutting back on the extravagance of St. Patrick’s Day festivities, said Ogden.

Ottawa police have also warned they will have a greater presence during the festivities downtown. It’s been less than a month since police drove crowds protesting COVID-19 restrictions out of Ottawa’s core, following weeks of disruptions to residents and local businesses.

Police have already started talking to local residents to reassure them officers will be monitoring for any law breaking and general misconduct.

At Okanagan College in British Columbia, a large-scale celebration isn’t a priority. The Okanagan College Students’ Union has already hosted two events this month and some have noticed that students are forgetting to wear masks or wearing them improperly.

“I think there is just a lot of fatigue in general over COVID and it still being going on two years later,” said Kristina Laitinen, who is the co-ordinator of member services at the student union.

Despite that, everybody is “fairly co-operative” at in-person events and they respect the needs of vulnerable people, she said.

While event organizers like the student union are confident that people will make the choice to follow COVID-19 protocols, they are incorporating these protocols into the events out of habit after two years of restrictions.

B.C. lifted its mask mandate for indoor public spaces last week, while vaccination mandates for businesses, events and services will be removed next month.

Montreal’s parade has been assigned a longer route than usual so that people will be spread out, said Tracey. The parade’s participants will also all be required to wear masks but spectators have the choice to not wear one.

On the other hand, CelticFest Vancouver isn’t making masking, vaccination or social distancing mandatory.

The festival is Canada’s second-largest celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and caters to all age groups. Even so, students and seniors are crucial to the success of the festival, which is expecting a crowd of up to 5,000 attendees, said Alan Cosgrave, vice-chair of the board at CelticFest.

The event is going to be held outdoors, but all indoor activities will still follow provincial health guidelines, Cosgrave said.

“We’re pretty nervous going into this year, honestly, especially with the various variants,” he said.

The staff at the festival will be putting up health and sanitization booths, where attendees can choose to pick up masks and sanitize their hands.

And while festival organizers in Vancouver and Montreal are emphasizing autonomy when it comes to masking, one thing is certain: they don’t plan on cancelling any more festivities.

—Lahari Nanda, The Canadian Press

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