Amid the pulsing lights and thumping music of Market Days, this weekend there will be something striking about people dancing in the clubs and stages of the street festivals: banners, posters and looping videos telling them how to avoid monkey pox.
As the LGBTQ-centered street festival Northalsted Market Days brings tens of thousands of people to Chicago, the spreading monkeypox virus will linger in mind. But before the party starts, doctors, health experts and festival organizers share their concerns and offer advice on how to stay safe.
The Biden administration is expected to declare the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency as soon as possible on Thursday.
At a press conference on Thursday to discuss the city’s efforts to control the spread of monkeypox during Market Days, Chicago’s public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, that she was “glad” to see the federal designation, as it should accelerate the delivery of more vaccine doses and allow for “more flexibility in funding” as Chicago has currently seen “zero (federal) to MPV.” to fight.”
The festival boasts a huge DJ dance area. It brings in singers, comedians and drag stars for its official events. More than 100,000 people come every year to flood Halsted Street, said Mark Liberson, the festival chairman.
“You have busy bars and busy streets. It’s just more people in more different areas,” said Liberson, owner of the North Halsted bars Elixir, Hydrate and Replay.
The Northalsted Business Alliance, the organization that runs the festival, is working with health officials to spread messages about the illness during the festival, he said. The community’s collective response to the monkeypox virus reminds him of the response to the AIDS epidemic.
“This community has a really long history of working together to address health issues,” Liberson said.
Health officials said that in the vast majority of cases they have seen, the virus appears to have been transmitted through sexual contact, mainly between men. So health officials are stressing the importance of public education and individual risk management — along with vaccines that remain relatively scarce and are prioritized for those at high risk — to control the spread of the virus.
But canceling Market Days was not a consideration, Arwady said. Since monkeypox doesn’t seem to spread during bar gatherings or street parties, “we don’t think it’s the right message to say we’re not doing this at all. We know that abstinence messages are usually unsuccessful. We have a lot of data on that.”
However, she said: “It is a time to be careful. Having multiple or anonymous sex partners at this time would be a higher risk in this setting.
Festival organizers and public health officials are asking people who show monkey pox symptoms, including undiagnosed rashes and mild flu-like symptoms, not to come to the festival, he added. Liberson thinks the virus is still manageable.
“It’s not something that’s easy to catch,” he said. “I think there is an opportunity for people to continue to enjoy their lives, and to do so safely.”
The number of monkeypox cases in Chicago rose to 459 on Thursday after JB Pritzker government declared the spreading disease a statewide public health emergency on Monday.
In Chicago, the virus has been found mainly in gay and bisexual men, a trend that matches its spread across the country and the world, data from the public health department shows. However, other people can and have contracted the virus in the city, and public health officials have repeatedly pointed out that the virus does not discriminate.
Monkeypox can spread through direct or indirect contact with the virus’ painful, characteristic pimple-like rash. It usually spreads through sex. That can be a problem on Market Days, Ald said. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward.
“It’s kind of a love affair,” said Tunney, who is gay and represents the area where the festival will take place.
Market Days is set on Halsted Street in the Northalsted neighborhood, formerly known as Boystown, which Tunney described as a “tourist mecca” for LGBTQ+ people across the country. The festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and has been an essential part of the local gay community for decades. It draws people from all over, especially in the Midwest, Tunney said.
But this time, anonymous intimate contact is “probably not the right way to act,” Tunney said, adding that people should also avoid mixing drugs and alcohol at the festival.
“Just use common sense,” Tunney said.
The city is better positioned to respond to monkey pox than it is during the major LGBTQ-focused Chicago Pride festival and international Mr. Leather conference, says Dr. Aniruddha Hazra, an infectious disease physician at the Howard Brown Health Center and the University of Chicago Medicine.
“It is much easier and much less cumbersome to send a monkeypox test,” Hazra said. A major leap in public awareness, increasing access to vaccines and new federal protocols for prescribing effective antiviral drugs have also boosted virus response, he said.
Still, Hazra expects the number of cases to continue to rise after the market days. All mass gatherings have the potential to spread infectious disease, including last week’s Lollapalooza music festival with COVID-19, he said. But while risk can never be ruled out, damage can be reduced.
“The first thing people need to know is that they can have a good time,” Hazra said. “There are ways to protect your health and still enjoy it.”
Gay and bisexual men should think about who and where to get intimate this weekend, Hazra said. People should have open and honest conversations about monkeypox with their intimate partners, he added.
And in crowded spaces, such as dance clubs, where people can rub against each other, “think about putting on a shirt,” Hazra said.
The best doctor in town had her own advice.
“Turn on the lights before you turn off the lights,” Arwady said, encouraging people to check for skin rashes and discuss the risks of monkeypox with potential sexual partners.
Avoiding contact with the rash of the virus, which can appear throughout the body and around the genitals, is an essential way to prevent monkey pox, she added.
To get people to think about the disease and how to protect themselves from it, the CDPH printed 10,000 palm cards and 1,000 posters that share information, Arwady said.
Banners will be placed at gates, informational videos will be played in bars and teachers will be placed at entrances to answer questions and direct people to resources. The city even got popular gay comedian Matteo Lane to make a public safety announcement about monkey pox ahead of the festival, Arwady said.
When the official festival events end at 10pm each day, many attend big dance socials called circuit parties.
“If you mix a Broadway show and a rave, that’s us,” said Edwin Martinez, operations director at CircuitMOM Productions, a company that plans circuit parties and other events.
The organization has already sold out Saturday night’s party in the Aragon Ballroom, which seats 5,000 people. Sunday’s event is also nearly sold out, Martinez said. Resale tickets go online for about $100.
At the parties, the attendees go wild with costumes, he said. Saturday’s event has a retro video game theme. Sunday’s motif is “at the rodeo.” The dance floors get crowded every year, although people can find space on balconies, he added.
“We try to provide as much education as possible to the people who come to the city,” Martinez said. CircuitMOM Productions shares information on where to get vaccinated on its website and social media, urges people with symptoms not to come to the party, and tells guests who want to have sex to do so elsewhere.
The group also added extra air conditioning so people can dance in comfort if they want to wear extra layers, Martinez said. The event should be safe because most monkeypox transmission occurs through sex, not the casual contact that can take place at a party, he added.
“We are a dance party for people to dance. We’re not a bathhouse,” said Martinez, who shared his frustration at what he believes are unclear public health reports surrounding monkey pox.
A chance encounter with others is unlikely to transmit the disease, but people should ensure their sexual contact is safe, Massimo Pacilli, CDPH deputy commissioner for disease control, told the Tribune. Festival-goers should avoid sharing drinks and vaping, he added.
Outdoor events are less risky than indoor events, Pacilli said. And while layers aren’t always in vogue on Market Days, it might be a good idea to dress in tight spaces.
“Space and a layer of clothing is actually good enough to do the job here,” he said. “The more crowds, the more time to put on a shirt.”
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Howard Brown will host monkeypox vaccination clinics on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. during Market Days at the Cell Block bar, with walk-in slots available from 3 to 5 p.m., said spokesman Erik Roldan. To be eligible for admission, you must meet the CDPH criteria and be an Illinois resident, he said.
The coveted shots are scarce in the city and the country. The Chicago health department recently said new doses will be used to vaccinate as many at-risk people as possible, likely causing delays in getting their second shot.
Many people from nearby Midwestern states with little to no vaccine stock are likely to vaccinate during the festival, Howard Brown physician Hazra said.
He hopes the city will vaccinate anyone at risk — which, according to the CDPH, currently includes men who have sex with multiple or anonymous men — and demand even more vaccine doses from the federal government to compensate the people from out of town.
For more important information about monkey pox and the most current data on the spread of the virus in Chicago, visit the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Monkeypox facts page.