Coronavirus fears threaten downtown, South Side St. Patrick’s Day parades

“There are grave concerns about having events with this many people,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea, whose ward hosts the South Side parade.

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Marchers take part in the South Side Irish parade in 2019.

Sun-Times Media

Mayor Lori Lightfoot returns to Chicago Wednesday from a brief spring break trip — when she could make the difficult decision to cancel both Saturday’s downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade and Sunday’s South Side Irish parade.

For days, Lightfoot has been under pressure from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others to cancel the parades amid fears that two such large gatherings — potentially attended by hundreds of thousands of people —would increase the likelihood of “community spread” tied to the coronavirus.

After initially supporting keeping both weekend parades up and marching, Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) — whose Beverly ward hosts the South Side Irish Parade — said Tuesday that he believes the parades should be canceled and that the mayor likely will pull the plug.

Other major cities have canceled their St. Patrick’s Day parades, including Boston and Dublin.

“There are grave concerns about having events with this many people. I’m very concerned about my senior citizen population, many of whom attend the South Side Irish parade every year. It’s a longstanding tradition in my community,” O’Shea said of the event, which typically draws 150,000 people and runs within 150 feet of 1,000 single-family homes.

“I know the mayor has been in discussions with the governor and the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Chicago Department of Public Health. I’m expecting a decision on the parade very soon.”

City Hall sources said the mayor plans to make a final decision on whether to cancel the parades on Wednesday, when she returns from the trip that coincided with her daughter’s spring break from school. Pritzker also said an announcement could come Wednesday.

“We’ve looked at what other states and cities have done. Some have issued guidance to cancel large gatherings,” Pritzker said during a Tuesday press conference. “As you saw, Boston and Dublin have both canceled their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. I think that’s some guidance from other places. My own view, I’ll just say, is I want to keep people safe and I think we gotta follow the guidance that medical experts give us.”

For the last several days, City Hall has been publicly stating that both parades were still on. O’Shea publicly agreed, and was advising parade-goers on Twitter to #WashYourHands.

Privately, it’s been a different story. Politicians from across the city were urging City Hall to make a decision and wondering why Lightfoot was waiting so long to make it. A cancellation in the interest of public health should have been made last weekend, sources said.

MelissaStratton, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said late Tuesday afternoon a final decision has not yet been made about either parade.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that, as of Tuesday afternoon, the department’s plans to deploy extra officers to both parade routes were still in place.

Kevin Coakley, co-chair of the South Side Irish Parade, said that organizers “have not heard of any changes” to the parade’s plans and “as far as we’re concerned, we’re a go until someone tells us otherwise.”

A representative for Plumbers Local 130 — the downtown parade sponsor that famously dyes the Chicago River green — did not return messages Tuesday.

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An aerial view of the Chicago River as it winds its way through downtown after being dyed green in celebration of St. Patrick’s day on March 16, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Dyeing the river green has been a St. Patrick’s Day tradition in the city since 1962.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The dyeing of the Chicago River and the subsequent parade downtown have been yearly traditions since 1962. In addition to throngs of local officials, politicians from all over have donned green for the day and marched, including then Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and then President George W. Bush in 2002.

The South Side Irish Parade dates back to 1979, when a handful of kids from the neighborhood marched around the 10900 blocks of South Talman and South Washtenaw.

Within two years, the parade grew and marchers were traveling south along Western Avenue from 103rdStreet to 115thStreet, which remains its current route.

With scores of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood residents claiming Irish lineage, raucous house parties in the neighborhood are as much of a tradition as the parade itself.

After 2009’s celebration, organizers opted to put the event on hiatus after, O’Shea said, the parade was “hijacked by idiots” who drank themselves into a stupor. The parade returned in 2012 with a renewed focus on being a family friendly affair. To encourage good behavior, police warned that anyone caught drinking or urinating on the public way could be subject to fines in excess of $500.

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