Chicago’s annual river-dyeing and St. Patrick’s Day parades were canceled, but green beer and Irish whiskey still flowed Saturday in River North, where hundreds flocked to celebrate despite officials’ pleas for “social distancing” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
People dressed in festive shades of green, leprechaun top hats and shamrock headbands lined the bars and clubs scattered throughout the Near North Side neighborhood. Inside, businesses were full — but not too crowded.
“With the virus going around, we’re taking care to make sure we don’t have too big of crowds in here today,” said a bouncer outside Celeste, a nightclub at 111 W. Hubbard St.
The bouncer, who declined to share his name, said Celeste also stocked up on hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, which were placed throughout the nightclub for everyone to use.
Down the street, a group of friends waiting to get into The Boss Bar passed around a flask of whiskey and a bottle of hand sanitizer. They chased each shot with a pump of sanitizer to disinfect their hands.
“I’m not about to put my life on hold because this is going around,” said Kyle Thomas, who said he was a nurse from Colorado who flew in to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with his Chicago friends.
Thomas said he had planned the trip to Chicago months ago, and although he was “taking the coronavirus seriously,” he wasn’t about to cancel plans.
“I’m being careful, I’ve got my hand sanitizer, and I’m washing my hands,” Thomas said. “So much has already been canceled and we might be overreacting.”
Meanwhile, at a Saturday news conference announcing 18 new cases of coronavirus that brought Illinois’ total to 64, Gov. J.B. Pritzker scolded the throngs of young people who ventured out to party.
“We need you to follow social distancing guidelines too,” Pritzker said. “You can have the unintended tragic effect of spreading COVID-19 to others who are more vulnerable.”
A River North bartender who asked not to be identified said she had mixed feelings about the festivities.
“St. Patrick’s Day is our busiest day of the year, so all the servers here have been worried about this virus affecting our tip money,” she said. “But on the other hand, I don’t want to get sick or have an outbreak in our restaurant because of days like this.”
She said her managers were on the fence about whether they should cancel their St. Patrick’s Day events, but ultimately decided not to because “we need the money.”
“I’m trying not to think about the virus, but I am scared,” she said. “I don’t get health insurance through my job because I don’t work enough hours, so I better not get sick here.”
Caroline Lake was also concerned. She had paid $39 in advance for a River North pub crawl, but reached out to its organizers late Friday to ask for a refund.
Lake said she was being a “smart citizen” by heeding the advice of the governor and public health officials to stay away from large public gatherings. But as of mid-day Saturday the pub crawl was in full swing and she had not heard back from the organizer, a company called Promo Se7en.
“They should be thinking about the greater issues here,” Lake said. “They’re adding to the problem.”
Representatives for Promo Se7en did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company posted that the event would happen as planned with no refunds for ticket-holders who change their mind.
“Although, the City of Chicago has canceled the dyeing of the river and the St. Patrick’s Day parade, our event will continue as planned,” Promo Se7en stated. “As stated in our event details below, the event ticket is not connected with any city events. Our event will go on regardless if any city event is canceled, rescheduled or postponed.”
“All venues will be taking extra precautions for public safety. Please remember to wash your hands, cover your mouth and nose when needed and please do not attend if you’re sick. We encourage everyone to have fun, be safe and look out for each other.”
Before noon a few miles north in Wrigleyville, both sidewalks outside bars along Clark Street between Roscoe and Addison were packed with revelers, many of them wearing the green T-shirts of another pub crawl.
A hand sanitizer station was set up on the sidewalk, but hardly anyone was using it.
Contributing: Stephanie Zimmermann