After many childhood years spent camping overnight along the Rose Parade route to score a front-row view, Leslie Lemus was stunned when she arrived in Pasadena just before sunrise Saturday and found two things practically unheard of in years past: nearby parking and plenty of sidewalk space.
"You get, like, VIP views!" Lemus, 29, of Downey told her 8-year-old daughter as they plopped camping chairs along Colorado Boulevard in the Pasadena Playhouse District.
"I'm surprised there aren't more people," said Lemus, who wore a black surgical mask as she peered at sidewalks that typically would be jam-packed long before the parade began.
Blame the coronavirus.
The Rose Parade returned Saturday after the pandemic last year forced its first cancellation since World War II.
And while it was seen by many as a whimsical respite from two painful pandemic years, the return was clouded by a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant. Across the country, other New Year's events were scaled back or canceled as the virus continued its unrelenting march.
As thousands of 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 new, confirmed infections are doubling every two days.
The surge undoubtedly led to the smaller crowd at the 133rd Rose Parade. But along the route, the joy was palpable.
The parade — started in 1890 as a promotional event by a local social club to show off Pasadena's famously mild winter weather — kicked off under sunny, blue skies and temperatures in the mid-50s. Actor and television host LeVar Burton served as grand marshal, and the theme was "Dream. Achieve. Believe."
Organizers said they felt safe presenting the parade because it was an outdoor event — which health officials say is safer than indoor gatherings — and because of numerous safety measures.
The Tournament of Roses required the 6,000-plus parade participants, as well spectators in ticketed areas, such as grandstands, to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of the start of the event. 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 walk up and watch, proof of vaccination and negative test results were not checked.
“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.
A lifelong Pasadena resident, Peralta-Wente, 55, quarantined at home all week and tested negative before the parade, which she has attended at least 25 times over the years.
“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.
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 ran 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 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 one out, saying running was one of the few 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 Tom Queally, 60.
Just before sunrise, Danelle Sullivan, 45, of Highland Park, applied makeup to her eyes with a 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.
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 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 Year's 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 featured 43 floats, 20 marching bands and 18 equestrian units, according to the Tournament of Roses.
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 company said in a statement.
Kaiser had planned to have 20 medical workers riding and walking in front of its float, which was called “A Healthier Future” and featured the figures of four children, including one wearing a stethoscope and caring for a teddy bear named Booster.
In another nod to these pandemic times, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation float was called "Vaccinate Our World" and featured a robot nurse wielding a syringe.
Michelle Van Slyke, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the UPS Store, said preparations for her company’s float — which was called “Rise, Shine & Read!” and featured a bespectacled, yellow rooster named Charlie reading to a group of chicks — took about a year.
The UPS Store float won the parade’s prestigious Sweepstakes Award this year, as it did in 2019 and 2020.
In 2020, float planning was already underway when the Tournament of Roses pulled the plug on the 2021 event because of the pandemic. But the UPS Store, Van Slyke said, “had our hands full” as an essential business that stayed open amid lockdowns. This week, she said, as the final decorations were being applied to the float, “safety is the number one priority,” and masking and social distancing have been essential.
The company’s float was 35 feet tall and 55 feet long. Van Slyke said it weighed 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 used to come to the parade with her grandfather, a construction worker who attended 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.
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 often 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, who played the tuba in high school, loved the marching bands. Brown played flute, her sister played clarinet, one brother played saxophone, and another brother played trumpet. Brown’s son was a percussionist and still plays 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.