What suburbs are doing about summer festivals -- and what the experts say
To fest or not to fest? That seems to be the question of the summer.
Much like states have taken widely different approaches to imposing or easing restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, so are local leaders making their own choices for suburban festivals.
Several organizers, such as in Arlington Heights, Schaumburg and Wheaton, have canceled events for a second straight year.
Others, including Naperville and Buffalo Grove, are making plans for modified, socially distanced events.
Then there's Elk Grove Village, which is planning to carry on normally -- with no requirements for masks or social distancing -- with its summer events.
So who's doing it right?
What the experts say
Health experts acknowledge it's a challenge to plan ahead without knowing what COVID-19 will look like this summer.
"Every jurisdiction is going to look a little different in whatever infection rate it's going to have," said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health. "Right now we're dealing with some resurgence in some areas and we are also seeing increasing vaccinations numbers. ... All of these things have to be taken into account."
However, it will be important to keep wearing masks and remain 6 feet apart, Arnold and the other experts say. Those measures -- along with hand sanitizing and hand washing stations and temperature checks for employees and, if practical, for customers -- are among guidelines for outdoor markets and festivals under Phase 4 of the state's Restore Illinois plan.
Gathering outdoors without masks is not recommended unless everyone is vaccinated, said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director for infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville.
"If you have a crowded situation and there are cases (of the disease), there is more likely to be transmission in that setting," he said.
Dr. Alan Loren, chief medical officer of Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights, agreed. "If you are going to have large crowds, close together, without masks, and they have not been vaccinated, we are going to see cases."
Vaccinations in the United States have proceeded more quickly than anticipated, with President Joe Biden saying last month there would be enough supply for all adults by the end of May.
In Illinois, slightly more than 3 million people are considered to be fully vaccinated, which is almost a quarter of the state's population.
But people also have been caught off guard by multiple surges of infections since the start of the pandemic, the experts said.
A total of 2,160 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Friday night, according to state health data. Of those, 496 patients were in the ICU and 217 patients with COVID-19 were on ventilators. The state's seven-day average case positivity rate was at 4.2% on Friday.
Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights has seen a steady increase in inpatients in the last several weeks, mostly younger people who haven't been vaccinated yet, Loren said. "People are tired of the pandemic, they are tired of being in isolation and they are taking on more risky behavior," he said. "We are not out of the woods yet."
Of particular concern is the spread of variants of the virus, particularly the B.1.1.7 variant, that seem to spread more quickly and easily, Pinsky said. "It's just this race between the vaccine and the virus."
The good news is so far, the variants seem to be "extremely sensitive" to vaccines, Loren said.
Going for it
Elk Grove Village is planning to have outdoor events with no requirements for masks, social distancing or crowd capacity starting with Rotary Fest on June 16.
"We're not shy to step up, and we're willing to be the first one," Mayor Craig Johnson said. "But we wouldn't do anything that's dangerous."
Johnson said he's confident in local efforts to distribute the vaccines, but worsening COVID-19 news could alter the village's reopening plans.
Rolling Meadows has promised a bigger, better July 4 fireworks show after canceling it last year.
"Considering the year we had this past year, considering the call for independence from COVID and making this a one-time nice Independence Day display, I think there's value in that," Rolling Meadows Mayor Joe Gallo said.
Yes, but modified
Some suburbs are opting to hold modified events.
Social distancing will be a top priority at Ribfest over Fourth of July in Romeoville, with special attention paid to safety protocols, such as adding hand sanitizing stations and ensuring adequate spacing in food and beverage lines, organizers said. Ticket sales will be limited for crowd control, and concert attendees will be distanced.
Last Fling over Labor Day in Naperville will be a modified block party with live music, a carnival and food and beverage vendors.
Buffalo Grove Days will be a modified block party with a carnival, a concert series and fireworks, and village officials will keep monitoring state guidance to decide whether to require masks, Public Works Director Mike Skibbe said.
"The health and safety of the residents, allowing social distancing to happen -- that's all important to have," he said.
Not until 2022
Arlington Heights, Lisle, Schaumburg, Wheaton and West Chicago have canceled festivals for the second straight year.
"Unfortunately, with the uncertainty going on right now and in the future and the planning needed to put on a festival of our size, it didn't seem like we could safely and comfortably do this at this time," Lars Ohrstrom, board president for Frontier Days in Arlington Heights, said last month.
In Lisle, "although we have made great strides over the past few months in containing and reducing the spread, it is with great sadness that we are announcing that the 2021 Eyes to the Skies festival and carnival will not be held this year either," officials said in a statement.
As for Schaumburg's Prairie Arts Festival, "although we're making progress against the coronavirus with the implementation of the vaccine rollout, unfortunately, we're not yet able to host events of this size due to the state's continued safety restrictions that are in place," Schaumburg Mayor Tom Dailly said.
In Wheaton, officials said they made "the extremely difficult decision" to cancel the Taste of Wheaton in June. They cited streetscape work being done downtown, which doesn't allow space for a carnival, along with ongoing COVID-19 restrictions that would limit programming.
West Chicago canceled its Blooming Fest in May and Railroad Days in July "in the interest of public health and safety," officials said.
"While strides have been made to reduce the numbers of those infected in West Chicago and DuPage County, we're not there yet. Like last year's cancellation of our special events, the decision is made with an abundance of caution and concern for all those involved and for the attending public," Mayor Ruben Pineda said.
Among the still undecided is Elgin, which last year canceled its Fourth of July celebrations and Nightmare on Chicago Street in October. "Staff continues monitoring pandemic conditions and COVID-19 guidelines, and will be providing recommendations in the coming weeks," city spokeswoman Molly Gillespie said Friday.
Those who've canceled events said they, too, will continue to monitor local COVID-19 metrics to decide on future happenings.
"We remain hopeful that with more people getting vaccinations, we will once again be able to open the grounds and doors to events soon," Dailly said.
Pineda echoed that. "We will be ready to host our community celebrations when the time is right."
Health experts said that, indeed, the most important thing is continuing to get people vaccinated.
"The more people are vaccinated, the more people are protected from getting infected," Pinsky said, "the fewer infections there are going to be, and the greater the chance we are all protected later this summer."
• Daily Herald staff writers Scott Morgan, Christopher Placek, Lauren Rohr and Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.