by Devin Fehely and Maria Medina

SAN JOSE (KPIX) — Communities throughout the Bay Area are celebrating the Lunar New Year despite pleas from public health officials for smaller, safer gatherings as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

“I was surprised that people still came over,” said Dan Phan.

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He was selling firecrackers at Grand Century Mall in San Jose’s Little Saigon. The city is home to the largest Vietnamese community in the United States.

Phan estimated the crowd at the mall, which normally hosts thousands of revelers over the three day holiday, was a tenth of what it was last year.

A man gets his temperature checked as he arrives at the Pao Hua Buddhist Temple in East San Jose to mark the Year of the Ox on February 12, 2021. (CBS)

A man gets his temperature checked as he arrives at the Pao Hua Buddhist Temple in East San Jose to mark the Year of the Ox on February 12, 2021. (CBS)

A few minutes away at popular Buddhist temple Chua Duc Vien, the typically elbow-to-elbow crowd was replaced with a socially distant, smaller one.

“It’s sad honestly, it’s really sad,” said Christine Ngo. “Usually it’s packed, you can barely walk, there’s firecrackers everywhere, it’s so much fun and, like this year, it’s dead.

Ngo said her family’s tradition is to go to the temple and pray at midnight but this year the gates were closed.

“I was a little upset about that,” she said. “This is one of the biggest temples around and, if it’s this empty, I don’t think that it will be packed anywhere else.”

Catherine Nguyen and her family visited the Pao Hua Buddhist Temple in East San Jose.

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“My favorite part is spending time with my family and playing games with them,” said 10-year-old Nguyen.

“I just stay home, spend time with my family, wash my hands and wear my mask,” said Allison Nguyen who along with her family has embraced a scaled-down celebration this year.

Grand Century Shopping Center in San Jose's Little Saigon neighborhood during Lunar New Year celebrations on February 12, 2021. (CBS)

Grand Century Shopping Center in San Jose’s Little Saigon neighborhood during Lunar New Year celebrations on February 12, 2021. (CBS)

The temple had people checking temperatures and offering hand sanitizer before guests entered its arched gates.

“I think there’s still a lot of home and family vibes. Just everyone is a little more cautious with each other,” said Devin Hong who celebrated at Grand Century Mall.

Hong said people were eager to say goodbye to the Year of the Rat which was dominated by the pandemic and to welcome the Year of the Ox which typically is associated with good health.

“A new year brings new opportunities, new blessings and new luck,” said Hong.

Ngo said that everyone she knows is praying for good health.

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“Everyone seems to be very fed up with the pandemic and we just want our freedom back,” she said.