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Mayoral ally demands an end to block party blockade

Ald. Tom Tunney wants to know why there have been no health guidelines released, no applications processed and no block party permits issued with just over two weeks to go before Memorial Day.

Children gather round to gather the candy that fell from a homemade Donald Trump Piñata at a Fourth of July block party in the Pilsen neighborhood, Thursday, July 4, 2019, in Chicago
A block party in Pilsen in July 2019.
Sun-Times file

A frustrated Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said Thursday it’s “frickin’ almost summer” and there has been “no guidance” from the city on whether or not block parties will be allowed — and, if so, under what capacity, mask-wearing and social distancing limits.

Tunney, one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies, aired his frustrations at the tail end of a meeting of the Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation.

With officials from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in virtual attendance, Tunney demanded to know why there have been no health guidelines released, no applications processed and no block party permits issued with just over two weeks to go before Memorial Day.

“It takes a good four-to-six weeks to organize your block — who’s bringing this and who’s bringing that. Sometimes there’s a little bit of entertainment. Sometimes the jumping jack is there. It is a very important event on a block-by-block basis,” said Tunney, chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee.

“We want to have our act together. We can’t do it without City Hall and without the health department. It’s high time they put some rules together and get the ball rolling and get people excited about being able to be outdoors in the summer in a safe way. … These are what keeps neighborhoods strong, these kind of smaller parties.”

With last year being “completely dark” because of the pandemic, Tunney said, there is pent-up demand for neighbors to gather again and celebrate their re-found freedom with others on their block.

During a normal summer, there might be 40 to 50 block parties in his North Side ward, which includes Wrigley Field. This summer, there might be even more, if the daily callers bombarding his ward office are any indication. Already, 20 permit requests are “backed up,” he said.

But when Tunney raised the question during Thursday’s meeting, he didn’t get a straight answer from officials on the call from the special events department.

Anne Hickey, director of program development, and Anne Davis, contract administrator, told Tunney they were “not the decision-makers.”

Block party permits are handled by the Chicago Department of Transportation. And besides, final sign-off needs to come from Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

That was not the answer Tunney wanted.

“We need to stop passing the buck and pointing fingers at each other. Let’s go. Let’s get it done. … People need to know they’ll be able to have a block party this summer,” Tunney said.

“I understand it’s a post-COVID environment. But we’ve seen the guidelines and it’s healthy to be outside. Just give us the rules so that we can get the ball rolling and get people organized for the summer. … People need more time to plan these events. It’s not just, `It’s Friday. Let’s have a block party.’ You’ve got to organize. You’ve got to get people involved. You’ve got to get support on the block to even have a block party.”

Tunney isn’t the only alderman demanding an end to the block party blockade.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) has been sounding the alarm since last summer.

“The mayor and Arwady have been solely focused on COVID for the past 15 months. And the fact that they have not taken into account a huge part of the city of Chicago’s neighborhood vitality, which are block parties, shows just how disconnected they are,” Lopez said.

“We have to come up with a plan. Otherwise, the neighborhoods will come up with one on their own.”

Lopez said he plans to allow “reduced-capacity block parties this summer” with or without permits from City Hall.

“We will proceed in the 15th Ward, regardless. We’re not gonna hold people hostage simple because the mayor can’t make a decision,” Lopez said.

“We will discuss with residents — if you’re willing to have a party with just your neighbors and staying at your individual homes and don’t invite outsiders to the block, we have no problem moving forward,” Lopez said.

Hours after the aldermanic tirade, the mayor’s office released a statement saying that while the city is “not formally permitting block parties at this time, as we move into the Bridge Phase, we are exploring methods to allow such events to return without increasing the risk to partygoers and will rely on guidance” from the Chicago Department of Public Health.