Column: A restaurant room and inside of the Auditorium Theatre both capped at 50 people? Pritzker’s plan needs a new Phase 4.5

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

In recent days, Lori Lightfoot has given fans of in-person baseball reason to look forward to the coming days of summer. “I think there will be a point sometime this season where you’ll see fans in the stands at both Wrigley and Guaranteed Rate Field, which I still call Sox Park,” Chicago’s mayor said on Tuesday.

She didn’t specify how many fans or when, but the experience of spring training and plans created by the sports teams imply we will be looking at somewhere between 10 and 50 percent of normal stadium capacity, most likely at the lower end of that range. And rightly so. For a while, anyway.

Similarly, Chicago restaurants have been getting good news, and a return on their extensive lobbying, with the City of Chicago raising maximum diner capacity to 50% capacity or 50 people.

But when it comes to helping live entertainment recover in this changing environment, there’s a roadblock in the form of the State of Illinois’ recovery plan.

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Here’s the problem, which was clear when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan first was unveiled last May.

In Phase 4, the so-called “revitalization” stage, the one we all are in now, indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people.

In Phase 5, the so-called “Illinois restored” stage, everything reopens, from Broadway tours to Lollapalooza-sized festivals, filled with tens of thousands of throbbing, sweaty people.

Care for that right now? Even if you are vaccinated?

There is just nothing in between. And that is going to be a problem, unless a change is made.

Fifty people is too few for most live-entertainment events. It’s true that the same cap applies to restaurants, but there is a caveat: 50 people per room. Many eateries, especially downtown or neighborhood joints that have either constructed tents or converted buildings from other uses, are able to welcome more people by employing separate rooms. Multiplexed movie theaters are able to do the same thing. And that’s also true at the Immersive Van Gogh show at the multiroom Germania Club on Chicago’s North Side.

But, according to the plan, it would be against regulations to put 100 people in, say, the huge Auditorium Theatre with its capacity of 3,875 people. By any reasonable standard, that’s illogical, especially since patrons can stay masked throughout arts events and do not have to remove their face coverings in order to eat and drink during a show. At massive, well-ventilated venues like the Cadillac Palace Theatre or the Civic Opera House, you and those in your familial bubble could remain far away from others and stay very much in accordance with current health guidelines, including those coming from the experts within the State of Illinois itself.

Other states are looking at this differently, and not just the ones that removed all restrictions, which is clearly a drastic, dangerous gamble at this moment. That is not what I am advocating here. I speak of something more balanced.

Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Repertory Theater, for example, recently announced plans to reopen at no more than 25 percent of the capacity of its 720-seat Quadracci Powerhouse theater. And although there have yet to be public announcements, I hear of similar plans elsewhere in the Midwest of using theaters with thousands of seats to offer safe, socially distanced entertainment for a couple of hundred patrons, dispersed all over the house, on multiple levels. Those kinds of numbers won’t work for big shows, of course, but they will work for some.

Most importantly, smart presenters and producers have realized that they have to offer an interim stage — one designed to build confidence. And that’s a crucial part of a safe recovery plan in accordance with the State of Illinois’ stated goals: “Restore Illinois is about saving lives and livelihoods.”

All in all, the State of Illinois can’t stay stuck on 50 until some kind of mythical, all-clear switch is thrown and thousands head out into a heaving room. The recovery needs to be more careful and gradual, especially since the vaccine is undergoing a slow rollout. There are patrons who would benefit greatly from a safe, live experience, arts workers who would gain employment and an entire State of people who will be kept safer by moderate, reasoned, scientifically based changes.

So it’s time for a “Phase 4.5,” an indoor capacity based not on an arbitrary number but on the size of the venue and the extent to which it has improved ventilation, developed a strategy for ingress and egress, and found a way to keep its loyal patrons safe. Maybe that’s 100 people. Or 250. Or 500. The key thing is that the rollout is gradual.

If it can work at Wrigley Field and Sox Park, it can work for music, dance and theater in our most expansive public spaces.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com