It’s a yearly Thanksgiving Day tradition: Millions of spectators crammed onto long city blocks, hanging over barricades and balconies or pressed against the windows of towering office buildings to watch giant balloons, depicting cartoon characters like Pikachu, hovering just a few feet above the street.
But this year, as with everything in 2020, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a ritual marker of the holiday, was drastically different.
Because of the threat of the coronavirus, much of the parade in Manhattan was scaled down and pretaped for the television airing. The route was reduced from two miles to a single block down 34th Street, near the flagship department store.
There were no high school bands. Instead of the usual 2,000 balloon handlers there were only about 130.
Warnings from officials to stay home because of the pandemic kept millions indoors this year, and police barricades were put in place to ensure nobody got too close.
Still, some spectators were curious and showed up anyway.
On 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, Karin Schlosser, 52, stood behind one of the barricades taking photos of the floats and balloons. The balloons this year included the characters Boss Baby and Red Titan from ‘Ryan’s World.’
“I felt like it was be a big adventure to just come on down here and see what I could see — and I actually saw much more than I expected to see,” said Ms. Schlosser, who is from California but is living in New York City for a month while working from home. “This is so amazing.”
“I think people still really need some sense of normalcy,” she added. “Everyone I’ve talked to is very aware of the pandemic. They want to be safe. They’re wearing masks, but they still want to connect with other people.”
Dozens gathered at the same corner shortly after 9 a.m. taking photos with their cellphones. A man with a woman snapped a selfie with Christmas floats in the background. Absent in the photograph was the usual crowd of thousands.
Across the street, a building remained boarded up from the days when owners had braced for unrest after the election results. Police barricades kept the public at least two blocks away from the staging area. The streets beyond the parade route remained largely empty.
Henry Danner, of the Bronx, recalled going to the parade with his family as a child and watching his cousins perform in marching bands. This year, Mr. Danner, 34, a freelance photographer and journalism student at Columbia University, said he was most interested in witnessing and documenting what it was like to attend a parade during a pandemic.
“The Thanksgiving parade is a staple in New York history,” Mr. Danner said. “I came to see what story I could capture. I knew New York was going to be New York and still come out.”
But much about the annual event was different, he said. “The energy is very somber. It’s usually upbeat.”
Kaitlin Lawrence, 31, and Zeev Kirsh, 40, tried to inject the event with a little levity when they decided to attend the parade in turkey costumes. Ms. Lawrence, merged her two favorite holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas. She dressed as a turkey-Santa.
“We are die-hard New Yorkers and we want to keep the magic alive,” Ms. Lawrence said.
The couple said they first met before the pandemic and later bumped into each other again while cheering on hospital workers at N.Y.U. Langone Health. Their love blossomed during quarantine, they said.
Ms. Lawrence, an actress, recently became a drama teacher after her acting jobs disappeared months ago. “Doing little things like this has really kept us going,” she said.
On the corner of 36th Street and Sixth Avenue, a crowd gathered and cheered as handlers prepared to lift the Boss Baby balloon from the ground. A conductor counted to three and then used a hand-held whistle to guide the handlers down the block. A woman on a FaceTime call angled the phone in the direction of the balloons.
Carolina Capitanio, 37, had traveled from Miami to New York for the holidays with her husband and their two young daughters. Ms. Capitanio said she wanted her children “to see something, but it’s not easy.” Her daughters peered through a row of metal barricades, trying to see the balloons down the street.
Others had similar difficulties.
“I saw half of a balloon,” said Jovan Williams, 43. “If I stayed home I would have seen more of the parade. I couldn’t even tell it started.”
In a normal year, handlers walk to the beat of marching bands and the sound of a roaring crowd.
“That energy was missing,” said Susan Tercero, executive producer of the Macy’s parade.
But Ms. Tercero said she still hoped that viewers enjoyed this year’s production.
“This parade means a lot to a lot of people and to New Yorkers,” Ms. Tercero said. “In a difficult year, it feels good to be able to deliver a little bit of happiness on Thanksgiving.”