Erin go bluff? Chicago River dyed green in surprise move as some revelers partake in annual festivities

The event was kept hush-hush, likely to prevent large crowds from gathering on the riverfront due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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In a surprise move, the Chicago River was dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day March 13, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Call it a little green lie.

The Chicago River is a brighter shade of green after all. After insisting as late as Friday that it wouldn’t happen, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office reversed course early Saturday and went ahead with the nearly 60-year St. Patrick’s Day tradition.

The traditional dyeing mainly was kept on the down low to prevent large crowds from gathering on the riverfront due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the mayor’s office said in a statement. However, some revelers and bar owners said they were aware of the city’s plan before it was publicized.

The surprise dyeing is a slice of normalcy for celebrants after St. Patrick’s Day parades were canceled amid coronavirus concerns for the second straight year. With the riverwalk closed, the pedestrian bridges were congested with people trying to take pictures of the shamrock green stream. 

In general, though, the usually wild party scene was fairly tame, with few wait lines outside of bars in the Loop and many practicing social distancing. While many places were booked with reservations, a lot of bars were below capacity and even had open tables — a stark contrast to one year ago when people were brushing elbows with strangers unaware of what was to come. 

“It’s weird,” said Orville Diaz, the general manager of Miki’s Park in River North. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and normally by 7 or 8 a.m. the streets are full. It’s different.”

Information about any citations issued over occupancy limits wasn’t available Saturday evening, but a spokesman for the city said, “generally businesses are doing a good job so far.”

Still, throngs of young people ventured downtown to party, and green beer and Irish whiskey flowed heavily.


Residents pose for pictures after the Chicago River was dyed green March 13, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For some partygoers, Saturday was the first time in months they could meet up with friends outside their personal bubbles. 

“We’re trying to make the best of it,” said Samantha Lane, a junior at DePaul who headed downtown with a group of friends. “We wanted to see the river. We’re just doing our best to get the college experience while we can.”

Lane, who turned 21 in August, said her friend group is taking extra precautions while enjoying the festivities, adding that many got tested for the virus last week.

“We’re not messing around, but we’re still trying to have fun,” she said.

Meanwhile, the virus was the last thing on other people’s mind, including one group from Indiana who donned matching green sweatshirts that read: “F*** COVID, let’s drink.” 

“I could [not] care less,” said Ben Byers, who ventured into the city from Chesterton, Indiana.

Kayakers slice through a green Chicago River March 13, 2021.

Kayakers slice through a green Chicago River March 13, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Other people decided to skip out on the downtown festivities to attend house parties instead.

“You have to do what you feel is safe,” said Aria Shokrai, a first-year DePaul student who went downtown to see the river with a group of friends.

Overall, Saturday’s turnout was underwhelming compared to past years, which is what many bar owners expected.

O’Callaghan’s decided not to take reservations in fear some people would book a spot and then not show up.

“Being the hard times that we went through, I didn’t want to have empty tables sitting here,” O’Callaghan’s co-owner Peter Stark said. “We’re keeping to our numbers and doing all the cleansing, and based on what we had last night, we never had empty tables. We just had a constant flow.”

This weekend is traditionally one of the busiest weekends of the year for bars and restaurants in Chicago, which has been named the best U.S. city to celebrate the feast day several times.

Though crowd size and revenue was down, some restaurant workers are hopeful for the future with the city slowly reopening.

“For us, it’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel,” Diaz said. “We definitely do feel that especially with the extension to 1 a.m. … and hopefully, knock on wood, we continue to move forward like that.”

But other bar owners were more doubtful.

“Who knows? We’ve been on such a rollercoaster with hours and restrictions ... and it just keeps [changing], so I don’t want to say this is the turning point and jinx myself,” Stark said.

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