St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Chicago usually involves kilted bagpipers, a green(er) Chicago River and young adults looking forward to an afternoon of Guinness and lime Jell-O shots. How should Chicagoans celebrate one year into the pandemic? That depends on who you ask.
Last year, as the coronavirus first began spreading around the city, local leaders unsuccessfully tried to tamp down the partying. Now, after more than 525,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., new cases are at their lowest levels since summer amid a ramped-up vaccination push under the Biden administration.
But with new variants and hundreds of new cases still being reported each day in Chicago, downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins believes it’s still too early to return to normal — even if that costs businesses in his ward.
“A closed room where people aren’t wearing masks — because you can’t drink your green beer through a mask — it’s a super-spreading event,” Hopkins said. “That’s our worst-case scenario right now.”
Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s top health expert, agreed: “We are not at a point where we can start having major St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.”
Will those looking to party take the advice and stay home, or will they point to a reopening plan that allows for socialization? Bars and restaurants can now operate at 50% capacity or up to 50 people, and just this week Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed optimism that the city may have a more normal summer. But partying on St. Patrick’s Day weekend — which last year infuriated Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker — was officially shut out of the reopening with the cancellations of the downtown and South Side parades. However, a quick internet search shows numerous unofficial celebrations and bar crawls.
“Haven’t you and your friends waited long enough to throw back a few cold ones? Hasn’t the last year been tough for everyone?! You deserve this,” reads a listing for an event at Deuce’s Major League Bar in Wrigleyville, which is selling tickets and seating customers at socially distant tables to meet city guidelines.
A representative from the bar could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bill Guide, president of the South Side Irish pubs Cork & Kerry, said there’s a way to host celebrations safely. And Guide said the online shaming and blaming of last year’s partiers was unfair because so little was known then about COVID-19 and how it spread.
Indeed, there were only 19 known COVID-19 cases in Illinois when officials postponed last year’s parades. And with limited and conflicting information from the federal government, revelers packed into bars and restaurants. Images of crowds flooded social media, prompting Pritzker to issue a statewide stay-at-home order.
This go-around, Guide said, businesses have a better grasp on how to operate and customers are more informed about the risks of going out.
Businesses be warned: The city won’t go easy on rulebreakers, said Ald. Hopkins. Enforcement teams are already scouring social media and Airbnb for unauthorized events, and businesses that violate safety regulations will face steep $10,000 fines, he said.
Chicago’s robust bar scene, which often relies on money from St. Patrick’s Day weekend after a slow winter, aren’t the only ones reeling from the impact of COVID-19 this weekend.
“The [South Side Irish Parade] is one day of the year, but here on the South Side, it’s a season,” said parade co-chair Tim McSweeney. “People are buying things. They’re meeting old friends at the pub for a pint to get reacquainted. … A lot of that will get lost this year economically.”
To lend a hand to establishments hit hard by the pandemic — and preserve a bit of the holiday spirit — he and other parade organizers started “Shamrock Our Blocks,” a St. Patrick’s Day-themed home decorating contest. Registration costs $20, and the winners will receive gift certificates to neighborhood businesses. McSweeney said he hopes it’ll take some of the sting out of another year of cancellations.
“The Irish have had their share of rough times over the years, but we’re also very adept at making the best of a difficult situation,” he said.
Making the best of it is what Guide plans to do, too. Disappointment aside, he said he understands why the city had to cancel the parades, but there’s still a way to mark the holiday safely. Cork & Kerry plans to keep its celebration lowkey, with bagpipers, Irish soda bread and corned beef.
“I think people want to come out,” he said. “We’ll be open.”
Libby Berry is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @libbyaberry.