By John Byrne – 3/11/2020
The coronavirus claimed its first major events in Chicago’s civic life Wednesday, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot canceled the city’s massive St. Patrick’s Day parades for this weekend because of fears the disease would spread through the dense crowds.
The mayor made her decision after days of speculation as other cities from Boston to Dublin dropped their festivities for the holiday. Lightfoot called off Saturday’s downtown parade and Sunday’s South Side Irish parade just days before they were set to step off. She also canceled a smaller Northwest Side parade.
“This was not an easy decision and we don’t take it lightly,” Lightfoot said at a morning news conference with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other officials announcing the decision.
The mayor’s last minute move to shut down the parades reflects the difficulty of the call. The St. Patrick’s Day revelry — which features the famous dyeing of the Chicago River green on the morning of the downtown parade — is a huge boon to Chicago hotels, restaurants and bars as people stream into the city from throughout the Midwest.
Lightfoot said officials would work to reschedule the parades at a later date.
The local tourism industry is already reeling from the recent cancellations of several big trade shows at McCormick Place, and the St. Patrick’s Day events draw tens of thousands of spectators.
But in the end, Lightfoot had to know she would be judged more harshly if Chicago got hit especially hard by the COVID-19 virus and the outbreak was traced back to the decision to go ahead with the parades. Health officials have been warning for weeks that the best way to avoid contracting the respiratory ailment is to avoid close contact with people who are infected.
“Like cities across the nation, we concluded that having a parade at this time posed an unnecessary risk to the public’s health,” she said.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, noted how hard it was to scrap the events.
“It was a very difficult call for the Mayor,” Reilly said Wednesday. “Nobody is more sensitive to the concerns of the downtown business community than I am, so this is very disappointing. But, as the son of a public health doctor who ran County Hospital, I can say this is 100% the right call.”
Pritzker said he supported the decision as officials were trying to minimize the rampant spread of COVID-19.
“This is not a decision that she took lightly, and we all know what the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations mean to the city of Chicago,” Pritzker said. “Because of what we’ve seen nationally, and across the world, of the increased risk of large gatherings, this was the right call.”
With the mayor out of town on vacation, Pritzker on Tuesday questioned whether Chicago’s parades should happen this weekend, even as event organizers and city officials said the celebrations would go on as planned.
There’s a precedent for a public spectacle causing serious public fallout during an outbreak.
In 1918, Philadelphia went ahead with a parade meant to drum up support for the sale of bonds to fund the U.S. effort in World War I, despite concerns about the burgeoning Spanish flu. Philadelphia then saw particularly high flu rates, and the decision to hold the parade has been blamed by historians.