Chicago’s Lunar New Year Parade in the South Side Chinatown neighborhood was blessed with unseasonably warm weather Sunday. But it wasn’t enough to coax the usual crowds to turn out amid fears over coronavirus, which started in China and has infected more 17,000 people worldwide.
Sparse parade attendance this year mirrored slower business activity in Chinatown since news of the virus — and the infection of a suburban Chicago couple — broke in recent weeks.
Before the parade started, Mayor Lori Lightfoot tried to put the news in perspective. She spoke to reporters on the corner of Wentworth Avenue and 24th Street, stressing that Chinatown is still open for business and officials are doing everything they can.
“As we continue to closely monitor the two confirmed cases in Illinois, I would like to remind residents that the chances of contracting coronavirus remain very low,” she said.
But as the parade kicked off with colorful lion dancers under blue skies, Chinatown resident Kari Choy couldn’t help but note the small crowds.
“I’ve been coming here since the 1980s,” she said, “and it’s sad to say this is the thinnest crowd we’ve ever had in Chinatown [for a new year parade] even on very cold days.”
Organizers estimated crowds were down by at least 2,000 from the usual 20,000. And at least a dozen attendees — some even on floats — were wearing medical masks.
Most mask-wearers declined to be interviewed, but Kristen Aalbue, whose mask bore colorful smiley faces, said it was just a general precaution.
“Public transport is a little worrying,” she said, “and at any event with a lot of people I want to be careful because of sneezing and germs and all that jazz.”
Still, one Chinatown business owner, who wanted to be known as “Jin,” said it could’ve been worse.
“Considering the situation, this is actually a great turn out,” he said, looking at the paradegoers on Cermak Road. “I don’t know why people are actually afraid. The flu virus kills more people than [the coronavirus] and the density here in Chicago compared to places like China — we are not all that close. We’re spread out.”
Some attendees were pleasantly surprised by the small crowds, and said they weren’t worried about the coronavirus. But others said that the coronavirus concerns actually motivated them to attend.
Kenai Class was there with a group of other girls adopted from China. And she said it was important to come out this year to show unity.
“We have to take care of each other and not be afraid of each other and support each other to show this is a community,” she said.
Devante Cosby of Englewood said he also felt compelled to attend in solidarity.
“Because a lot of the fear about the coronavirus is based on ignorance and racism and is just an excuse to be racist,” he said. “So, I really came just to show my support. … And to say that we are all human and we all deserve respect.”
Chinese American Illinois State Rep. Theresa Mah, 2nd District, marched in the parade along with other officials and offered some measured advice.
“We have been telling people to take precautions, to wash their hands and watch for symptoms if they have been in contact with people who have traveled abroad,” she said, “but I hope that there isn’t unwarranted panic and that people are taking the right precautions, but life goes on and we need to celebrate the new year.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kristen Aalbue’s last name.