How to bring back Chicago arts and entertainment faster: Take it outside?

How to bring back Chicago arts and entertainment faster: Take it outside?


How do we feel about going outside?

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, which means all of about eight weeks ago, the fresh air was looked upon with deep suspicion. Chicago closed its iconic lakefront and footpaths, especially after photographers caught seemingly caught dangerous crowds of people on its beloved 606 trailway.

Of course, how crowded a place might or might not be, given the widespread use of telephoto lenses to construct narratives, is rarely as clear cut as it might seem and has often been used to confirm previously held positions or political allegiances. Still, social distancing clearly was a poorly practiced skill back in March (who even knew what that was?) and politicians reacted with fear and fury.

This response, though, is being rethought. It contrasts starkly with the creation of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Some researchers have argued that those hospitals in Boston offered “a combination of fresh air, sunlight, scrupulous standards of hygiene, and reusable face masks” and that this “appears to have substantially reduced deaths among some patients and infections among medical staff.” Moreover, there now is growing evidence that the outside is significantly safer when it comes to COVID-19 transmission than the indoors, especially given the small Chinese study that explored how air currents and an active air-conditioning system inside a busy restaurant apparently resulted in multiple infections.

No credible source is arguing that infections cannot result, and have not resulted, from large cheek-to-jowl crowds outside, but there is an emerging consensus that, when aided by capacity controls, social distancing and rigid face mask use, outside is most likely safer than the indoors. So far, most of the focus and debate on this issue have concerned the reopening (or not) of beaches and parks for small-group hiking, biking and other forms of outdoor recreation. The Morton Arboretum in Lisle recently announced it would reopen for members June 1.

But it’s time to think about the implications for arts and entertainment.

Outdoor venues, such as the lawn at the now-shuttered Ravinia Festival on Chicago’s North Shore, have obvious, built-in advantages even beyond the presence of outside air: it is easier to social distance without fixed seats and quarantining families can more easily huddle together on the grass, apart from others. If uncomfortable with the health or actions of fellow audience members, it’s far easier to remove yourself to another spot than clambering over a row of knees. The same goes for the lawn at the now-shuttered Grant Park Music Festival, or the many other grassy performance spaces in parks across the city and across the nation, including the now-shuttered New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.

The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles has outdoor seating too. Yet on Wednesday, it was announced that it had been canceled for the first time in 98 years.

John Olson dances with Terry Pabon of Michigan City, Ind., while listening to the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park in 2015. The festival is currently closed, but if people want to gather for live performances, outdoors might be the way to do it.

John Olson dances with Terry Pabon of Michigan City, Ind., while listening to the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park in 2015. The festival is currently closed, but if people want to gather for live performances, outdoors might be the way to do it.(Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)


Politicians are reasonably worried that giving a green light to outdoor gatherings of any size might encourage unsafe behaviors from people on their way to and from such events, one of many arguments against continuing with Chicago’s Lollapalooza music festival, an event hardly known for social distancing among it young patrons. There are real fears surrounding the safety of public transportation. Lines and ticket taking are tricky. And indoor bathrooms remain a prosaic but deadly serious issue here: Many venues are worrying about the apparent need to sanitize stainless-steel flush handles after every use, suggesting that this might be a new golden age for self-disinfecting portable toilets, present in European cities for years.

The same issues surrounding performer safety that have roiled not only theater but TV and movie production also apply here, of course. But there is progress being made in those areas and, in general, outdoor venues offer more physical distance between, say, an emoting singer and an enthusiastic fan. Outdoor venues have historically been hospitable to solo artists — an acoustic singer, say, or a small band that could be set up at some distance from each other. If Ravinia closed its pavilion and opened its lawn, that moat of safety would extend hundreds of feet.

Up in Minneapolis, the huge Guthrie Theatre announced this week it was mothballing its colossal self for the best part of a year, shedding scores of jobs. But on its huge campus, the Guthrie does have outdoor space. And those early fall evenings are attractive. There may be an opportunity to avoid the indoor dangers and rehire some artists.

In general, we are more used to casual performances outside. People feel more empowered to leave early or dip in and out or change their minds about going. The more pessimistic predictions out there on the future of indoor shows (2021? 2022?) tend to be predicated on the assumption of a persistently reluctant pre-vaccine audience: No producer wants to sink advance money into a concert or show without being able to predict profitable demand. That might be less true for outdoor shows, although touring assumptions would need to be rethought. A lot has to be rethought.

All that goes to say that the notion, as implied in many of the emergent state and city reopening plans, that 50 people eating unmasked indoors in a restaurant, or sitting in a storefront theater, inherently are safer than 250 masked folks gathered on grass outdoors listening to a guitarist is worth reconsidering. Maybe the Jazz Festival and, yes, even a drastically modified “alt” Lollapalooza could reinvent themselves in that safer vein; the latter might help prevent teen rebellion across Chicagoland this summer, which has its own implications for safety.

Unknowns are omnipresent, of course, as with everything else in a crisis that not only is suffused with paradoxical choices, but is unfolding with so limited a set of data for us to make our choices and for our leaders to issue their guidance or prescriptions. Everything has changed at a dizzying speed and there is no sign any of that will moderate in coming weeks or months.

But so far, at least, a masked experience in the great outdoors is holding up pretty well. Add some grassland succor for the soul and this most bizarre of American summers might become more bearable, at least as it gives way to cool autumn evenings. It is worth wondering if we are closing the right things.


Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.




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