Early in 2022, it was looking like it would be another disappointing year for the organizers of the Toronto Beaches Lions Easter Parade, who have had to forgo the annual event since the pandemic began more than two years ago.
But the parade is now making an in-person return for the first time since 2019.
"Until probably six weeks ago, we thought for sure it wasn't happening," said Sharon Ramsden, the treasurer for the Beaches Lions Club and a longtime parade volunteer.
At the time, the city was just coming out of a COVID-19 surge brought on by the highly contagious Omicron variant and the province had tightened public health measures. The Lions didn't think they'd be granted a permit.
But then, organizers heard the St Patrick's Day Parade got the green light from the city. The Easter parade then got its own permit. With the province relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in March, organizers kicked things into high gear, Ramsden says.
"We're really, really, really excited that it's back and it's back in person."
The parade takes place on Queen Street East on Sunday in The Beach neighbourhood beginning at 2 p.m. It will be a little smaller than previous years due to the last-minute nature of the planning, but it will feature at least 50 floats and groups, she says.
Members of the Beaches Lions Club aren't alone in their excitement. The Easter Bunny is returning for in-person visits at various events across the Greater Toronto Area. Meanwhile, many churches are opening their doors to their full congregations again for the first time in two years during what most Christians consider to be the holiest week of their calendar.
The Easter Bunny heads north
Farther north, the Easter Fun Fest at the Markham fairgrounds runs all long weekend. Evan Aranoff, the event's co-producer, says attendees can expect to spot the Easter Bunny.
For Aranoff, it's not only about the fun. The pandemic dealt the events industry a massive blow and forced many people who'd been in the business for years to leave. This is only the second large-scale event his group has been able to hold in months, after typically holding six to eight of them in the Toronto area each year, he says. But ticket sales for the Fun Fest have been good and he is feeling hopeful.
"The good news is that people have this pent-up desire to want to do things," he said.
The event will feature a range of performances, small midway rides, bouncy castles and slides, a trackless vintage train, a 15-foot bunny to take photos with and an Easter egg hunt, Aranoff says, adding that there's a mix of indoor and outdoor events in case people feel safer from COVID-19 staying outside.
Worshipping together in person again
Some churches are holding a mix of in-person and online services this weekend. Others have had plans for in-person services nixed due to COVID-19 infections among staff and other concerns.
But St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in downtown Toronto will open its doors to its full congregation, although it will live stream some services so people can also watch from home.
On Easter Sunday in 2021, only 10 people were permitted inside the church at any one time, says Father Frank Portelli, the cathedral's rector. Waiting in line outside for their turn, nine parishioners at a time could come in for just 10 minutes.
There would be a very short service, two minutes to pray "and then we'd have to ... scuttle them out," he said.
"It was sort of the most depressing Easter last year," even for the priests, he added.
But this year, the choir boys are back and many worshippers are looking forward to celebrating together again, he says.
For Portelli, the Saturday night Easter vigil is the Holy Week mass where the shift to a full in-person congregation will be the most meaningful. That's because it's the time when the sacraments will take place for many people who have been waiting to be officially welcomed as Catholics.
Now, for the first time since 2019, it will be in front of a whole congregation, filled with music and the other elements they've been missing, he says.