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Is Festival Season Happening This Summer? Pitchfork And Riot Fest Organizers Make Plans, While Others Look To 2022

More than 200 permit applications have been submitted for 2021 events, but whether fests can be staged is "fully dependent on where we are in the arc of the virus,” Lightfoot said.

A pre-pandemic Pitchfork Music Festival.
Pitchfork Music Festival/ Facebook
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UNION PARK — It remains uncertain if large festivals and concerts will be allowed in Chicago this summer — but organizers are applying for permits in hopes that events can be staged after all.

Last year’s festival season came to a screeching halt as coronavirus triggered the state’s Stay At Home order in March, closing businesses and prohibiting large gatherings of people. The city’s massive St. Patrick’s Day parades Downtown and on the South Side were canceled — and they were followed by a steady stream of events being called off across the city, from Pitchfork and Lollapalooza to neighborhood block parties.

But with the vaccine rollout underway, some festival organizers are holding out hope they’ll be back in business this year.

More than 240 permit applications for festivals and events have been submitted to the Chicago Park District for 2021, according to public records obtained by Block Club. Organizers of Pitchfork, Ruido Fest and ARC Music Festival are seeking permits for Union Park, while Riot Fest and Summer Smash have applied for permits at Douglass Park, predicting 15,000 to 45,000 attendees, records show.  

The city isn’t making any promises the fests will happen. Park District spokeswoman Christine Carrino said leaders are “not formally planning, nor permitting events at this time,” but they are “hopeful” some events could be possible should the city make enough progress in the fight against coronavirus.

“As such, Mayor Lightfoot has directed city departments to prepare for the possibility of events this summer and ensure any resources that could be necessary are available,” Carrino said. 

Asked about Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago, city officials said they were “not yet ready to predict specific events.”  Organizers for the Pride Parade and Pride Fest said they are “cautiously optimistic” the event could be held this year, though if it is, it’s likely it would be later than its normal date in late June.

If the health guidelines allow for it, “the city will provide guidance to event organizers on how to execute events as safely as possible,” said spokeswoman Asha Binbek.

Other fest organizers have already decided to postpone their events another year. Logan Square Arts Festival and Midsommarfest in Andersonville have been canceled for the second straight year, though organizers hope to be up and running again in 2022.

“We just think it’s best to take another year off and come back in 2022 stronger than ever,” said Billy Helmkamp, Logan Square Arts Festival co-chair.

In lieu of the festival, organizers and the arts group I AM Logan Square plan to announce “a number of initiatives to continue to engage the community in Logan Square,“ Helmkamp said.

We Have To Make Sure That It’s Safe

The state will only allow festivals, large events and conventions when Illinois moves into Phase 5 of its reopening plan. That’s at least weeks away, as Gov. JB Pritzker said last week the state will have to vaccinate more people and then wait 28 days to ensure there’s no COVID-19 surge before moving into Phase 5.

But major festivals are banking on late summer or fall events.

Pitchfork is tentatively planned for Sept. 10-12 in Union Park, according to the Tribune. Riot Fest organizers have started promoting their festival at Douglass Park for Sept. 17-19. ARC Music Festival, a new house and techno festival, is planning for Labor Day weekend.

Representatives for all three festivals declined to comment.

The Chicago Park District did not respond to multiple questions about if Lollapalooza submitted a permit application for this year. Spokeswoman Michele Lemons said park officials are monitoring city and state coronavirus guidelines for in-person gatherings before deciding on any permits.

“Permits will only be approved if events comply with those guidelines at the time the event occurs,” Lemons said in an email statement. “The organizer acknowledges that they will follow all local, state and federal guidelines related to COVID.”

The multi-day event at Grant Park drew about 400,000 attendees in 2019. Organizers C3 Presents did not return requests for comment.

Though the Park District would not comment on Lolla, the agency is working closely with event organizers to make adjustments to “event scope, if necessary and ensure guidelines are strictly observed,” Lemons said.

Organizers may be required to adjust their events if additional restrictions are required by city and state guidelines. Ultimately, the Park District can revoke permits altogether, Lemon said.

“The Chicago Park District reserves the right to cancel any event that does not meet current COVID-19 guidelines,” Lemons said.

Credit: DNAinfo Chicago
Lollapalooza in 2017.

Still, many organizers are hesitant about their plans. Coronavirus cases, deaths and the city’s positivity rate have fallen since the fall surge — but officials have said they still remain high enough that Chicago is not considered a low-risk city. And those numbers have seen a slight uptick recently, particularly among young people — who tend to form of crowds at large festivals and concerts.

Eric Williams, founder and director of the Silver Room Block Party, has not decided if he’ll host the Hyde Park event this year because of the “fluidity of the situation.” He wants a few more weeks to make a final call. 

Williams said he would like to see the vaccination rate be higher in all communities.

“It’s going in the right direction, but the situation has been so tenuous that it’s better that we err on the side of caution,” Williams said. “We all want to return to normalcy. We have all lived through this crazy winter so I personally want to go festivals myself, but at the same time we have to make sure that it’s safe.” 

Kristen Kaza, creative director of No Small Plans Productions, recently started discussions around small-scale outdoor events that could take place later this year.

Kaza said organizers and attendees are nervous about how safe events would be, and her approach is to take things “small and slow and prioritize people’s wellness and protection above everything.”

We are “trying to imagine social distant events at much smaller capacities that are also planned and announced within a much shorter time frame as opposed to festivals which are announced months in advance,” she said.

Kaza said organizers need to see guidance from the city “so we can approach public assembly in a way that supports both the people taking the risk of put themselves back to work as well as those attending the events.”

Even with the uncertainty, organizers behind the 57th Street Fair are planning their annual festival in person and virtually if the city grants event permits this summer, organizers said. 

RELATED: 57th Street Art Fair Will Be Held In Person This Summer — If The City Allows It

Board member Lee Tomlinson said they plan to go beyond the “bare minimum” with coronavirus precautions if they get clearance from the city. Some of their safety measures could include having a single, ticketed entrance, requiring one-way traffic through the fair and only allowing one household in an artist’s booth at a time.

“The main thing is safety. We’re going to make sure people are safe,” Tomlinson said.

For now, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she is cautiously optimistic leaders could “open up the city” if things keep trending in the right direction with the pandemic. The mayor recently announced Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field will reopen for baseball season at limited capacity. 

“Whether or not we have a summer that’s more like 2019 as opposed to 2020 is going to be fully dependent on where we are in the arc of the virus,” Lightfoot said.

Maxwell Evans, Mina Bloom, Joe Ward and Jake Wittich contributed to this report

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