Chicago Is Once Again Loosening COVID-19 Restrictions And Making Plans For Summer Fests

Crowds at a Blues Festival Chicago
Visitors to the Chicago Blues Festival, an annual free three-day music festival in Chicago, cheer as they attend a concert in Millennium Park. in this file photo from June 8, 2019. Chicago is making plans to bring back summer festivals. Amr Alfiky / Associated Press
Crowds at a Blues Festival Chicago
Visitors to the Chicago Blues Festival, an annual free three-day music festival in Chicago, cheer as they attend a concert in Millennium Park. in this file photo from June 8, 2019. Chicago is making plans to bring back summer festivals. Amr Alfiky / Associated Press

Chicago Is Once Again Loosening COVID-19 Restrictions And Making Plans For Summer Fests

The city of Chicago is allowing businesses to expand capacity limits and making plans for summer festivals in its next phase of reopening.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday the city would loosen restrictions on restaurants, performances, flea markets and other events as the city saw its COVID-19 positivity rate drop below 5% for the first time this week since late March.

“It’s a gross understatement to say that this past year has tested us all in unimaginable ways, but nonetheless we all persisted because we had to,” Lightfoot said. “And that persistence has been rewarded .. I’m thrilled to announce that we are able to broadly loosen capacity restrictions across industries, starting today.”

Changes effective immediately

The city is keeping much of the percentage of capacity the same in this next phase, but eliminating or expanding the cap on the total number of people allowed at businesses and events.

For example, restaurants and bars can now open up to 100 people, up from 50 people maximums; large indoor events can now operate at a total 25% capacity, eliminating caps on the total number of people. That’s good news for Bulls and Blackhawks fans who can now attend games at the United Center.

And social events, like weddings or community gatherings, will still be capped at 50%, but exclude vaccinated guests.

In addition, capacity limits at those private social events will exclude those who are vaccinated --- defined as 14 days after receiving their final vaccine dose. The city said those events must be at licensed businesses, and business owners will be responsible for “verifying” that exempted patrons are fully vaccinated. Owners must also keep records on those exemptions.

Those exemptions could eventually expand to businesses and other events, the city said, depending on how the rate of COVID-19 cases goes.

The new rules are effective immediately. Full reopening guidelines are here. Cook County officials announced similar guidelines Thursday as well.

Summertime Chicago

Lightfoot also announced the city would move forward with summer outdoor programming, including Movies in the Parks starting in July, and hundreds of other cultural events.

It plans to on May 28 reopen Maggie Daley Park, which has been largely closed since the pandemic began. The city will also kick off its iconic street festivals with Windy City Cookout in July.

Outdoor festivals can allow 15 people per 1,000 square feet. To put that into context, that would allow for around 9,135 people at a summer music festival like Pitchfork, which takes place at the nearly 14-acre Union Park on the city’s West Side. Or, double that amount if Chicago moves to its next reopening phase by then.

The city could also move to reopen further in the next few weeks if current COVID-19 metrics remain stable or decrease, officials said.

The next phase, known as the Chicago Bridge Phase, allows for 75% capacity at bars and restaurants; 60% capacity at fitness centers; and 30 people per 1,000 square feet at outdoor festivals.

Arwady added she’s confident the city can reopen broadly, as New York City announced it’s doing by July 1, if vaccination rates continue to increase.

Officials are also hinting at incentivizing vaccinations. Earlier this week, Arwady talked about a vaccine incentive underfoot called “VaxPass” that would give vaccinated people access to concerts, entertainment, and other free events.

Current COVID-19 rates

Chicago is currently seeing an average of 527 cases per day, with a 4.7% positivity rate. Arwady said the city has seen consistent decreases in COVID-19 rates for the past two weeks — the timeframe the city uses to evaluate reopening guidelines.

At the height of the pandemic, Chicago was seeing positivity percentage rates in the high 20s, and thousands of cases per day.

COVID-19 is still hitting communities of color hardest in Chicago, as vaccination rates in Latino and Black communities lag. And earlier this week, Dr. Arwady expressed concern over a slight uptick in cases among Chicago’s most elderly residents. Chicagoans 80 and older have seen a 10% increase in COVID-19 cases in the past week.

“While this is an exciting moment, I have to warn everyone that we are not out of this pandemic yet, and we need to continue to be safe and smart,” Arwady said.

In the meantime, a little over half of the city’s residents have gotten one dose of the vaccine. But officials are facing multiple hurdles in the next phase of the vaccine rollout, including hesitancy among hardest hit communities.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. Follow her @MariahWoelfel.