If our luck holds with improving coronavirus conditions, the upcoming bridge phase for both the State of Illinois and City of Chicago will be a short bridge. The Tribune wanted to know how that span of time, estimated from mid-May to mid-June, will affect our entertainment options — what does bridge phase mean for music clubs, movie theaters and museums?
One thing we found out is that not every Chicago destination will jump to take advantage of larger capacities.
But first, the rules and labels have been confusing as the city and state reopen, to say the least. It’s useful to briefly sum up where we are now.
What is the bridge phase: We’re now in Phase 4. For Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced May 6 that he will ease coronavirus-related restrictions May 14 as a step toward a full reopening as soon as June 11. That span of time is the bridge between our current Phase 4 and the hoped-for Phase 5, or full reopening. Phase 5 is defined as “all sectors of the economy reopen with new health and hygiene practices permanently in place.” This whole timeline has been part of Restore Illinois, the overarching campaign to allow the state to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The June 11 full reopening is not for sure. As reported in the Tribune, during the bridge phase the state will keep an eye on COVID-related data and metrics including numbers of new cases and the percentage of people who are vaccinated. Positive progress means reopening; negative numbers will require ramped up restrictions.
What about Chicago: The City of Chicago has followed the state’s Restore Illinois but has had timelines and precautions of its own. On April 29, Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot announced the launch of Open Chicago, the latest initiative to reopen the city. New Chicago Phase 4 rules went into effect that day. If COVID metrics remain stable, the city will follow the state’s schedule and enter its own Chicago bridge phase in May.
Illinois bridge vs. Chicago’s: The city’s bridge rules look a lot like the state’s with a few additional restrictions, mostly for dining. Illinois Phase 4 specifies only social distancing between tables with standing areas limited to 25% capacity — and the only change in bridge is standing areas increase capacity. In Chicago, rules for Phase 4 were for 50% capacity with no more than 100 people per space, plus social distancing; in bridge that’s 75% capacity plus social distancing.
What else is covered and what are the rules: Bridge phase provisions affect dining, museums, indoor and outdoor concerts and more; an easy-to-scan Tribune graphic is titled “What’s allowed as Illinois and Chicago reopen” and there’s more coronavirus news at chicagotribune.com/coronavirus.
So what’s next?
Zoos and museums go from 25% capacity in Phase 4 to 60% capacity. So do amusement parks such as Great America. Outdoor festivals double the number of people allowed per square foot. Indoor events in Illinois requiring tickets — which means sports, movies and performing arts — are currently regulated by size, with smaller venues (those holding fewer than 200 people) allowed the lesser of 50 people or 50% capacity, and larger venues allowed 25%. All go to a flat 60% capacity during bridge.
Regardless, Shedd Aquarium says it will not suddenly fill to 60% capacity on May 14, or even necessarily when Phase 5 arrives. Several venues the Tribune spoke with said they would keep their own timetables for adding more customers.
Illinois bridge rules do put the Shedd, as a museum, on par with what’s allowed for retail spaces, said Meghan Curran, the chief marketing officer for the lakefront aquarium, and that’s something they’ve been arguing for. “We feel in terms of traffic flow, we’re comparable,” she said. But the Shedd will keep close watch on social distancing in its galleries and will only increase capacity slowly, in increments, to make sure no spaces become crowded. “It’s most important to us that people feel comfortable.”
Museum of Contemporary Art deputy director Lisa Key said the museum would initially begin taking more admissions only through its Tuesdays on the Terrace outdoor jazz program.
Zanies Comedy Clubs in Chicago and Rosemont, as ticketed venues, also will increase to an allowed 60% capacity during bridge, but they feel much the same as the Shedd, said Zanies spokesman Rick Gieser. His clubs are small, so while they might be able to let a few more folks through the door, they’re mindful of social distancing and mostly waiting until Phase 5 for the full-room laughs. “We’re looking forward to welcoming everybody back,” he said.
Movie theaters have been luring back audiences for weeks now, and the bridge phase will make a difference — or won’t — depending on the kind of auditorium for the theater, said Chris Johnson, CEO of the local Classic Cinemas chain. His Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, a large room with traditional seating, won’t increase past 25% capacity because of social distancing. But for his Cinema 7 in Sandwich, with smaller theaters and recliners, the cap of 50 people maximum is also gone so they can sell a few more tickets.
Even after Phase 5 arrives, he doesn’t see packing the room, he said, the plan is to leave buffers of empty seats between groups at least for a while.
On the other hand, at the west suburban Brookfield Zoo, outdoor space is in abundant supply, said marketing vice president Leah Rippe, and come May 14 they’ll be able to let in 60% capacity, albiet still with timed tickets and indoor exhibits monitored for crowding. “But 60% is really quite exciting for us,” she said.
Some big steps so far: The announcement of Phase 4 has already made summer look a little more fun. The Windy City Smokeout, a country music and barbecue festival, is slated to be the first street festival in Chicago when it comes to life for four days in July outside the United Center. And inside, James Taylor may be the first concert July 29. The largest venues such as the United Center count as ticketed events and increase to 60% capacity during bridge; read the full state rules at coronavirus.illinois.gov.
Lightfoot’s Open Chicago program has a side program called Open Culture, specifically devoted to all things arts, and promotes a return of Chicago SummerDance to parks around the city in August, a “Chicago In Tune” month-long musical festival kicking off Aug. 19 and other events.
While no announcement has been made on the fate of Chicago’s Lollapalooza, Blues Fest, Jazz Fest, Taste of Chicago, Air & Water Show and Pitchfork among other traditional summer festivals, Riot Fest is currently scheduled for Sept. 17-19 in Douglass Park. A Pitchfork representative did apply for a permit to hold the Union Park festival in September.
Chicago’s theaters and major cultural institutions such as Lyric Opera have largely stayed on the sidelines during talk of phases. Their indoor productions, regardless of venue size, are many months in the making and most have been looking to the fall to resume live performances. The Goodman Theatre, which hosted Lightfoot’s announcement of Open Culture, will have its first live play in August; the Lyric will resume with Verdi’s “Macbeth” in September. An exception is Teatro ZinZanni reopening July 8.
The return of big touring Broadway musicals are even further out; look to “Six” at the Broadway Playhouse in October as likely the first for the big Loop presenter Broadway in Chicago.
But don’t wish away the summer first.
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