This moment in time may be one of the last chances we will have to make a truly wise decision about the COVID-19 pandemic for the sake of our own community. It’s clear how divided our nation is: The states that have chosen to enact preemptive measures like mask-wearing have been rewarded with fewer cases; those that did not are watching cases rise. This coming weekend on the University of Illinois campus, Greek Reunion is moving forward as planned. Hundreds, if not thousands, of young people will convene in Campustown, some from many miles away, to party hard, and drink the night away. It’s the sort of thing that we’d normally be okay with, provided that there are safety precautions in place. But we are not in a normal moment. This virus can no longer be contained or controlled. It is airborne. The Texas Medical Association ranked “going to a bar” as the most dangerous activity you can do during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mayor of Champaign, who acts as liquor commissioner*, needs to close all bars in the Campustown district starting Friday, July 10th at 6 p.m. and ending Sunday, July 12th at noon. Whether or not they serve food or not is irrelevant. If they primarily serve copious amounts of alcohol, they need to be shut down.
Furthermore, the mayors of both cities should use their executive and emergency powers to return all bars and restaurants in all of Champaign-Urbana to Phase 3 immediately. If they do not do this, we will see COVID-19 cases rise, and C-U will likely end up with more illness and potentially, more deaths, long before any students step foot on the University of Illinois campus.
Illinois was never ready for Phase 4. Governor Pritzker and his team made a mistake. We should recognize that, and learn by example. We should examine the Restore Illinois plan that the state has given us and take it for what it is: a guideline. We can be smarter and more comprehensive and better prepared to manage this pandemic locally, and that would put us all in a tremendous position to further analyze both what needs to stay open, and how we can support those that simply cannot.
Screenshot from the COVID Tracking project website.
Screenshot from the COVID Tracking project website.
Of course, it does not seem fair to shut down only some bars, and we know that the restaurant and bar industries are in peril. There are a lot of things that aren’t fair about any of this. We have to first think of the long term costs versus the short term gains. We have to think comprehensively if the federal and even state government will not.
The states that reopened early have proven to us that we cannot trick or outrun this virus — it does not discriminate. Julie Pryde, Administrator of Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said that from the very beginning, and it bears repeating now. When we asked her if the emergency order that Mayor Deb Feinen released last Thursday went far enough, she wrote to us:
I appreciate the steps taken by the UI and Mayor Feinen & Mayor Marlin to try to stop the planned “Greek Reunion."
Bars are going to be a problem for our community. Bars have served as super spreader sites in other states, and we know that will happen here too. It is not just campus bars, it is all bars. At the very least I would like to see bars limited to seated patrons only. They need to implement the same measures as restaurants during this pandemic.
The fact is, there is no safe way to gather indoors during this pandemic. There are ways to reduce transmission, but that would include wearing masks and maintaining at least six feet distance from others. This will not happen in any bar in Champaign County without additional restrictions.
(Mayor Feinen released an emergency order for campus bars; Mayor Marlin simply issued a statement, since no Urbana bars traditionally participate in Greek Reunion, just like Unofficial.)
The science of this pandemic indicates that large gatherings of unmasked people will likely result in transmission of the virus. The worst thing that could happen is monumental loss of life. Sickness to no end. People suffering; hospitals overrun. How many deaths is okay? Is it a dozen? Is it fifty? More? Champaign County has already lost 15 people to the virus, with nearly 1,000 infected. What is the number of dead bodies we need to see before we truly take this as seriously as it is asking us to take it?
The future is even more uncertain now than it was in March when this first exploded our nation, and this community. After all, what would happen if we truly disinvite almost ⅓ of our population to live here for nine months of the year? It will be very difficult for everyone.
But at some point — and even outside of this pandemic — moving forward, we are going to have to start thinking less myopically as a community, and start analyzing the collective long term costs that this new reality may bring. We aren’t talking about a year, we are talking about more. We are talking about the potential for soaring costs in healthcare, social services, alternative methods for educating and caring for our youth, and job loss.
We can shut these bars down next weekend. Or, we can allow them to remain open and just… see what happens. But we are not bigger than nature. As evidenced in the past few months, and arguably all of American history, we cannot just declare a reminder about our rules and expect people to behave. This is no longer an opportunity to negotiate.
In March, we ran a column written by our publisher about the importance of granting them emergency powers; this is precisely what he was talking about. The mayors have been empowered by our city councils to make hard decisions to protect us from danger. This is the time to use them.
Please, Mayor Feinen and Mayor Marlin: Make the hard but clear choices that are in front of you. Please keep us safer now than we would be otherwise.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.
*Editor's note: The language here was changed to Champaign rather than Champaign and Urbana, since participating bars are in Champaign.