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A green pint and sigh of relief: Baltimore parties, carefully, for St. Patrick’s Day

The phone kept ringing. The tables were full, and a line stretched out the door. Jill Packo darted after a napkin that blew outside.

Overwhelmed, the Towson proprietor allowed herself to stop and sigh in relief. It all felt like St. Patrick’s Day in a college bar again. The sloshing pitchers of Bud Light, the Lucky Charm pancakes, the foam leprechaun hats.

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The St. Patrick’s Day party returned Saturday to her bar after a long absence because of the coronavirus.

“People were really itching to get out after they missed last year,” said Packo, co-owner of Barley’s Backyard Uptown

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Students from Towson University filled every table on her two floors and patio. Some 140 people just downstairs, Packo said. Her staff spaced the tables 6 feet apart.

The crowd celebrated the Irish and that Gov. Larry Hogan dropped seating limits Friday at bars and restaurants statewide. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. followed suit. Except Packo missed the news until Friday night.

Early Saturday morning, she was hauling dozens of chairs from storage in her home garage back to the restaurant. The staff handed out 200 green foam hats. The pandemic that broke out in March last year canceled St. Patrick’s Day parties. So the liquor companies brought her a stockpile of giveaway T-shirts and plastic beads unused from last year.

“The only thing I’m short-handed with is a hostess,” she said, trying to grab the phone and seat the next party.

In Baltimore City, however, restrictions remained in place and limited bars to 25% capacity indoors, 50% outdoors. Mayor Brandon Scott had cautioned revelers to avoid crowds, maintain physical distance and wear masks.

No bar hopping or wild celebrations, he told everyone. Cases of coronavirus and deaths have spiked after other holidays.

“Don’t let the thrill of a good time harm your health or the health of someone you care about,” Scott said at a news conference Friday.

In maintaining city restrictions, he considered that Baltimore’s 11 hospitals are brimming with patients. Acute care and intensive care are at nearly 90% capacity, though a majority of those patients don’t have COVID-19, according to Baltimore Health Department statistics. Still, Scott said, an outbreak in the counties could stress the hospitals.

“When people get sick in those other places, guess where they end up?” the mayor said.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, urged everyone to remain careful for a little longer. Every day, more people are vaccinated.

“We are heading toward a much better tomorrow — if we can stick together today,” he said at the news conference.

In Fells Point Saturday, the people were excited, but nervous. Some came starved for social interactions.

“I just feel like I need to see people out and about,” said Patti McGee, who sat with a friend and plate of oysters outside the Sláinte Irish Pub and Restaurant.

The row of bars had pitched tents over the cobblestoned street. Under the tents, they set zip-up bubbles, like clear plastic camping tents. People ate and drank inside these bubbles. Servers unzipped, dropped off the food, zipped back up — like St. Patrick’s Day in outer space.

Mike Nocket has worked the door of Cat’s Eye Pub for nearly a decade. Most St. Patrick’s Days, the line heads down the block; the small bar is famous for its live music. Saturday brought hardly a line at all.

“People are a little scared,” Nocket said.

Still, friends Allison Tucker, Yvette Basta and Amanda Everett devised their own safety plan. That is, if they have a few drinks and start to slip up.

Tucker will make sure they keep their masks up. She’s calling herself not a designated driver, but designated mask monitor. The women hardly left their homes in months.

“We don’t want to take chances,” Tucker said, “but we are dying to be alive.”

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