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Officials have been canceling events across the region and schools are telling students to stay off campus amid coronavirus fears. But Wednesday afternoon, Cavanaugh’s Restaurant & Sports Bar in University City assured many revelers — in an ALL CAPS tweet — that their beloved Erin Express was not canceled.
For decades, a certain segment of young Philadelphians has descended upon Center City and University City for the Erin Express, the multi-weekend day-drinking marathon where attendees cram onto school buses rotating among 17 Philadelphia watering holes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
There’s no cover at any of the participating bars, and there are $4 16-ounce Bud Lights, $5 Fireball shots, and $5 Bud Light Seltzers. People wait all year for this two-weekend event, paint their faces green, wear green tutus and top hats, and don shirts with sayings like: “I came. I saw. I blacked out.”
While the coronavirus may be stopping other events, it isn’t deterring people like Devin Harold from celebrating St. Patty’s Day with what many would call one of the city’s favorite traditions (and others would call one of its most loathed).
The 24-year-old has been washing his hands more than usual lately, and for the bar crawl on Saturday, he is just going to bring along some hand sanitizer and avoid shaking hands with people. And with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade canceled, this becomes one of the few big gatherings in the city to celebrate the holiday.
“I feel like I’m not as afraid of it as I should be, which I guess is weird to say, but I’m not really impacted by it at all,” said Harold, who works as a server at the Friendly’s in Glassboro. “I just feel like not enough people have it to be worried to the point that people are worrying about it.”
Brian Pawliczek, who owns Cavanaugh’s Restaurant & Sports Bar along with his parents and runs Erin Express with the owners of the University City bar Smokey Joe’s, said Tuesday he had not considered canceling the Erin Express. (Smokey Joe’s owners did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“This is kind of just like a fluid situation, day by day. Unless we hear something from the mayor or governor or so, it’s just something, I don’t know what exactly you’re asking about. It seems like everybody is on their own for taking care of themselves," Pawliczek said. “Just because they’re riding a bus and enjoying themselves, it is no different than riding a SEPTA bus, or a train, or enjoying your everyday activities, or a Flyers game, or a Sixers game, and I guess people are all on their own for their own health precautions."
Pawliczek said he has hand sanitizer at Cavanaugh’s front door, and people can bring their own. When asked if he is taking any additional precautions in terms of cleaning the bus, he said: “Do they clean the train every time they stop at a new station?”
MaryClare Rae, 23, of North Wales, saw people online saying Erin Express should be cancelled so she tweeted her thoughts: “Am I auto-immune deficient? Yes. Am I still going to erin express this weekend? Yes.”
Rae has psoriasis, which she described as her immune system attacking her skin cells instead of doing it’s job to attack diseases. But she is also Irish and St. Patrick’s Day is her favorite day of the year.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” she said about Erin Express.
People have been asking City Tap University City if they were still planning on participating in Erin Express, to which the bar responded in a Facebook post: “YES WE ARE.”
“Public safety in all aspects is something that we care about and continuously make sure we are taking proactive measures in cleanliness and safety,” the post reads. “With that being said, we are excited to welcome you, your friends, and all of your punny themed shirts this Saturday to celebrate the second half of Erin Express. We’ll see you there!”
The free transportation is seen as a safe way to experience this bar crawl — a bus means fewer people are driving. But with coronavirus spreading and health experts warning people to stay away from large gatherings, the close quarters of the bus and bars may be particularly harmful.
City leaders advised residents on Tuesday to “consider not attending public gatherings with more than 5,000″ people, but later acknowledged the randomness of that number. Public health experts agree that events, of any size, that include shouting, cheering, and drinking — not to mention the swapping of potentially infectious bodily fluids — like Erin Express, pose a risk.
“It’s my nightmare,” Carolyn C. Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said about Erin Express. "How selfish is that party. Many are young people and thank God they seem to be doing well in this crisis. But the elderly are vulnerable and at risk of death and undoubtedly those partyers have a perfect opportunity — sharing drinks, in close quarters — to get sick, and they become tinder for the fire, putting other lives at risk.
As of Wednesday, Drexel student Lila Hanish said she still planned on doing the Erin Express. But maybe, she said, cases could increase by Saturday to the point where she wouldn’t go.
“But I kind of doubt it, because everyone at Drexel is still going,” said Hanish, who turned 21 on Wednesday.
Coronavirus is causing her and her classmates uncertainty about their futures — Drexel has yet to announce moving classes online, as many universities in the area are, but that could change. One of the only events Hanish and her friends know is still happening and can look forward to is Erin Express.
"That is why everyone is adamant about having it right now,” Hanish said. “Everything in this world is getting shut down one way or another. This is one of the few things people still want to make happen to get some joy out of life while they still can.”
Staff writers Marie McCullough and Tom Avril contributed to this article.