The Rose Parade is back.
After the coronavirus forced its first cancellation since World War II last year, the whimsical, flower-filled procession returned to Pasadena on Saturday.
The parade began at 8 a.m. Pacific, with actor and television host LeVar Burton serving as grand marshal. The theme is “Dream. Achieve. Believe.”
While the return of the Rose Parade is seen by many as a cheerful respite from two painful pandemic years, it is clouded by a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
As spectators from across the country lined Colorado Boulevard, nearly 1 in 4 people in Los Angeles County who are being tested are positive for the coronavirus, and daily totals of new, confirmed infections are doubling every two days.
The parade crowd was smaller than in years past. Although some people had been camped along the route since midday on New Year’s Eve — a beloved tradition for those hoping to score a good view of the floats — many arrived Saturday morning and found a front-row spots and, pratically unheard of, good parking.
On Thursday, Kaiser Permanente canceled plans to have front-line medical staffers participate in the Rose Parade.
“We must prioritize the health and safety of our front-line medical staff and ensure we are able to treat patients during this recent surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant,” the healthcare system said in a statement.
Kaiser had planned to have 20 medical workers riding and walking in front of its float, which is called “A Healthier Future” and features the figures of four children, including one wearing a stethoscope and caring for a teddy bear named Booster. The float will still be in the parade.
Numerous health and safety measures are being taken by event organizers, including the cancellation of indoor events leading up to the parade.
“All the planning that we have done has positioned us well to be able to host the Rose Parade in a safe and healthy way,” said David Eads, executive director of the Tournament of Roses.
“The overall sense of renewal and rebirth of the Rose Parade is forefront with everybody. We’ve come up with a couple of terms for it: ‘One parade, two years in the making,’ and ‘The bloom is back.’”
The Tournament of Roses is requiring the 6,000-plus parade participants, including people on floats, marching bands and equestrians, to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of the start of the event.
Parade spectators ages 12 and up in ticketed areas, including grandstands, also had to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test. Attendees ages 2 and up in those areas were required to wear a mask.
Along the rest of the 5.5-mile route, where people can just walk up and watch, vaccination and negative test results were not checked.
Before the parade began, Craig Farestveit jogged along an empty Colorado Boulevard with two friends, as he has done annually for a decade.
Even without a parade last year, they jogged the route to try and keep the festive spirit alive.
“It’s nice being back, seeing the tortillas in the street, innovative bedding situations,” Farestveit said as he peered around at campers who rang in the new year on the street. (For years, it has been a tradition for campers to throw tortillas filled with shaving cream at passing cars.)
Farestveit and his friends shook their heads when asked if the Omicron surge made them consider sitting this year out, saying running was one of the things they have been able to do safely together.
“At the height of COVID, on our deep trail runs, everybody was masked up; it was interesting,” said his friend, Tom Queally, 60.
Just before sunrise, Leslie Lemus and her family plopped their camping chairs along Colorado Boulevard in the Pasadena Playhouse District.
In years past, at that hour, the sidewalks would have been jam-packed with spectators. But Lemus found easy, close parking and plenty of viewing space.
“You get like VIP views!” Lemus told her 8-year-old daughter, who sat bundled in a thick, hooded jacket.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more people,” said Lemus, who wore a black surgical mask.
Lemus figured the smaller crowd was because of the coronavirus surge. She said she felt safe on Saturday because her entire family was vaccinated and was putting some space between themselves and other attendees.
Nearby, Danelle Sullivan, 45, of Highland Park, applied makeup to her eyes with a small compact mirror as her 9-year-old daughter slept next to her on an inflatable mattress, clutching a stuffed horse with a Rose Parade bandana around its neck.
Sullivan watched the parade on television as a child but said it’s extra-special seeing it in person.
The mother and daughter last came in 2018. They arrived for this year’s parade at noon Friday, expecting the huge crowds they saw back then.
“We could’ve stayed warmer for longer,” Sullivan said. “But [we’re] not really upset. To come out here is an adventure.”
Near Roosevelt Avenue, Deborah Twyford, 54, of Eastvale, sat by a propane-fueled fire pit with crumpled confetti at her feet. Six chairs were reserved for the rest of her family, who arrived Friday afternoon and camped overnight, barbecuing hamburgers and playing games.
“I thought there would be more people last night for the New Years celebration, and I thought I’d wake up to rows of chairs from what I’d read,” she said. “I’m really surprised.”
This year’s parade features 43 floats, 20 marching bands and 18 equestrian units, according to the Tournament of Roses.
Michelle Van Slyke, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the UPS Store, said in an interview that preparations for the company’s float — which is called “Rise, Shine & Read!” and features a bespectacled, bright yellow rooster named Charlie reading to a group of chicks — has been going on for about a year.
The float won the parade’s prestigious Sweepstakes award this year.
In 2020, float planning was already underway when the Tournament of Roses pulled the plug on the event because of the pandemic. But the UPS Store, she said, “had our hands full” as an essential business that stayed open amid lockdowns.
This week, as the final decorations were being applied to the float, she said that “safety is the number one priority” and that masking and social distancing have been essential.
The company’s float is enormous: 35 feet tall and 55 feet long. Van Slyke said it weighs about 24 tons, with 12 moving parts and 130,000 flowers.
“If you’re going to do it, do it in a way that’s going to be fun and magical,” she said. “We all know we’re in the life’s-too-short category these days, and we want to bring some brightness after everything we’ve been through these last two years.”
Van Slyke grew up in San Bernardino and came to the Rose Parade year after year with her grandfather, a construction worker who came annually, even if he was by himself. They would spend the night along the parade route with chorizo and egg burritos and hot chocolate in thermoses.
“My grandfather would just be ecstatic if he knew I was involved in putting a float together,” she said.
Despite the festive atmosphere and postcard-perfect blue skies, some attendees said COVID-19 was never far from their minds.
“COVID worries me in general, like all the time,” said Kathleen Peralta-Wente, who shouted, “Happy New Year!” at every passing float and band while standing atop a kitchen stool near Madison Avenue to see over other spectators’ heads.
Several of Peralta-Wente’s relatives tested positive for the coronavirus after gathering for Christmas, she said.
Peralta-Wente, 55, a lifelong Pasadena resident, quarantined at home all week and tested negative before the parade, which she has attended at least 25 times.
“We did not go out,” she said of herself and her husband. “We Postmated and Instacarted our way through that.”
She said she plans to get a booster shoot soon, with added motivation after this week’s scare.
Valerie Brown, 62, of Loma Linda, sat with several family members near Lake Avenue, wearing a Happy New Year headband.
“Sometimes I’ve been here when it’s so crowded you can’t move,” Brown said from the unobstructed front-row spot she snagged Saturday morning. “So it is nice having less people.”
After moving to California in 1986, Brown made it a priority to attend the parade as much as possible. Her father had always wanted to come.
“We grew up in Indiana watching the Rose Parade, but we could never afford to go,” Brown said. “We’d talk about how he always wanted to watch it.”
Her father loved the marching bands. He played tuba in his high school band. Brown played the flute, her sister played the clarinet, one brother played the saxophone, and another brother played the trumpet.
Brown’s son was a percussionist and still does music for a living, she said.
She was able to bring her father to the parade one time. A bucket-list item, checked off.
Times staff writers Salma Loum and Anumita Kaur contributed to this report.