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Organizers should ‘think seriously’ about canceling summer events amid COVID-19, Pritzker says

The state is likely closer to “bending the curve” of the coronavirus patient surge, but the governor questioned the wisdom of holding large summer festivals before a vaccine is developed.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a March 30 news conference.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a March 30 news conference.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signaled some hope on Thursday in the state’s battle against the coronavirus, saying stay-at-home efforts are “bending the curve.”

But the Democratic governor also offered a large bit of advice for organizers of large-scale gatherings this summer: cancel them.

“I think everybody needs to think seriously about canceling any large summer events,” Pritzker said. “I just don’t, from my perspective today, I do not see how we are going to have large gatherings of people again until we have a vaccine, which is months and months away.”

The governor added that he “would not risk having large groups of people getting together, anywhere. And I think that’s hard for everybody to hear. But that’s just a fact.”

He said even with more testing and tracing of cases necessary to monitor the extent of the outbreak, “it isn’t enough for me to say it’s OK.”

Beyond that statement, it’s unclear whether Pritzker would indeed order such gatherings banned and whether that would entail gatherings such as baseball games and street festivals. Asked for further clarification, governor’s office spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said decisions will be “based on science.”

“COVID-19 is a novel virus that medical experts are still learning about as we deal with this crisis,” Abudayyeh said. “Gov. Pritzker believes we must be able to test expansively, closely trace the virus and offer treatment before we can return to mass gatherings.”

Staples stopped

Organizers have already pulled the plug on some springtime city staples. A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events confirmed that all city programming has been canceled through May 15, including the 20th Chicago Kids and Kites Festival that was slated for May 2 at Cricket Hill in Lincoln Park.

Other city-sponsored events set to happen after then, like the Mole de Mayo festival in Pilsen, could face the same fate.

The three-day event, held at the intersection of Ashland and 18th Street and scheduled to start May 22, features live music and dancers, Lucha Libre wrestling and a cook-off pitting chefs and restaurants against each other to find the best version of the namesake Mexican sauce. Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, whose 25th Ward includes much of Pilsen, said he believes “there should be an official decision soon,” though he hasn’t been informed of a cancellation.

But key summer events that draw hordes of attendees from Chicago and beyond are still scheduled to take place — for now. That includes Blues Fest, on June 5-7, and the Taste of Chicago, which typically draws over a million people to Grant Park and is scheduled to kick off July 8.

“The health and safety of our patrons is our number one priority, which is why City of Chicago departments and sister agencies continue to follow the rules laid out by the stay-at-home order, and will continue to do so, regardless of its duration,” DCASE officials said.

People enjoy the Taste of Chicago on July 11, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
People enjoy the Taste of Chicago on July 11, 2018.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, Chicago’s highest-profile summer music festivals, both announced last month that they were still planning to host the events slated to start July 17 and 30, respectively.

Lollapalooza organizers tweeted last month they remained in contact with local officials and were “well underway with planning for Lolla to take place as soon as it’s safe for us all to be together in Grant Park.” A festival spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions about whether those plans have since changed.

On Thursday, Pitchfork organizers pointed to a statement from March that said “we will continue to monitor as the industry, city and health officials update large-event procedures, and we will implement and communicate those procedures to ticket holders.”

Representatives for Schubas and Lincoln Hall, two music venues on the North Side, said they’re in a “holding pattern” as far as planning Pitchfork and Lollapalooza after-shows.

Earlier Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she would be “extremely cautious before we lift anything” about the order that has ground the Chicago economy to a virtual halt.

Lightfoot said the bottom line, from an economic standpoint, is that “how we recover and how long it takes” will depend on “what the science and the data tell us about what the cases are” and “what testing comes on-line.”

“We don’t want to follow what happened in some other countries where, they put in some very draconian closures, bent the curve, then lifted those measures and then saw a huge spike in cases.”

Lightfoot said the end for stir-crazy Chicagoans and shut down businesses is “impossible to predict right now.” But it’s the subject of constant discussion between her team and Pritzker’s.

New numbers spark optimism

Before casting doubt on the summer event schedule, Pritzker said the state’s latest COVID-19 numbers sparked some optimism about “a flatter curve.”

Health officials reported another 66 deaths attributed to the virus, raising the state’s death toll to 528. Another 1,344 positive diagnoses brought Illinois’ case total to 16,422.

That was a day after the state saw a record spike of 82 deaths, but “our rate of rise is looking less and less exponential,” Pritzker said.

“That indicates to us that we are, in fact, bending the curve. There is even some evidence that we may be moving toward a flatter curve. But we need to keep watching the data on a daily basis.”

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, also said the state is “heading in the right direction.” And she warned that staying home is the best way to keep fighting it.

“The guidance remains the same. We know that anybody can catch this virus and that means anybody can transmit it,” Ezike said. “It’s irresponsible to not take the necessary precautions to protect not only yourself but those around you.”

Pritzker said it’s “unlikely” his stay-at-home executive order will be lifted before April 30 — and signaled there could be further restrictions come May, depending on case trends.

“As we approach April 30 we will be thinking about, what are the restrictions or rules that we need to set going forward after April 30? Because it isn’t going to be unlike what some have said at the federal level,” Pritzker said.

The governor was also asked if he’s worried that with Illinois closer to a peak, residents might not stay home.

“Everybody needs to know that if we are improving — and it’s still up in the air — but if we are improving here in the state, it is because people are staying at home,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker’s office said there are more than 2,700 COVID-19 patients in Illinois hospitals, including 1,164 patients in intensive care units. Of those ICU patients, 765 are using ventilators.

Since Wednesday, 32 more people have entered ICU beds.

Those numbers are key to understanding when the state will reach its peak hospital capacity and its peak numbers of deaths. Pritzker’s office has said the state isn’t quite there yet, but his administration has not yet publicly released its projection models.

The governor has said his team is using several models, including the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation projection, which projects the state will reach peak hospital usage on Saturday. The model also projects the peak deaths on Sunday.

Contributing: Fran Spielman