Amid Market Days’ pulsing lights and booming music, something will stick out to people dancing at the street festival’s clubs and stages this weekend: banners, posters and looping videos telling them how to avoid monkeypox.
As the LGBTQ-centered Northalsted Market Days street festival brings tens of thousands of people to Chicago, the spreading monkeypox virus will linger on minds. But before the party starts, doctors, health experts and festival organizers are sharing their concerns and advice on how to stay safe.
The Biden administration is expected to declare the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency as soon as Thursday.
At a Thursday news conference to discuss the city’s efforts to control the spread of monkeypox at Market Days, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she was “pleased” to see the federal designation because it should speed up the delivery of more vaccine doses and provide “more flexibility in funding” as Chicago has seen “zero (federal) to combat MPV at this point.”
The festival flaunts a huge DJ-dance area. It brings in singers, comedians and drag stars for its official events. Over 100,000 people come every year to flood Halsted Street, said Mark Liberson, the festival’s chairperson.
“You have busy bars and busy streets. It’s just more people in more different areas,” said Liberson, who owns the North Halsted bars Elixir, Hydrate and Replay.
The Northalsted Business Alliance, the organization that runs the festival, is working with health officials to push messaging about the disease during the festival, he said. The neighborhood’s concerted response to the monkeypox virus reminds him of its response to the AIDS epidemic.
“This community really has a long history of working together to address health issues,” Liberson said.
Health officials said that in the vast majority of cases they’ve 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 prioritized for high-risk people — to control the virus’ spread.
But canceling Market Days was not a consideration, Arwady said. Given that monkeypox doesn’t appear to be spreading at gatherings in bars or at street parties, “we do not think that it sends the right message to say we’re not doing this at all. We know that abstinence messages tend not to be successful. We have a lot of data on that.”
However, she said, “It is a time to be careful. Having multiple or anonymous sex partners right now would be higher risk in this setting.”
Festival organizers and public health officials are asking people exhibiting monkeypox symptoms, including undiagnosed rashes and mild flu-like symptoms, to not come to the festival, he added. Liberson thinks the virus is still containable.
“It’s not something that’s easy to catch,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity for people to continue to enjoy living their lives, and to do so safely.”
The number of monkeypox cases in Chicago rose to 459 on Thursday after Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared the spreading disease a statewide public health emergency Monday.
In Chicago, the virus has mostly been detected among gay and bisexual men, a trend that matches spread across the country and world, public health department data shows. Other people can and have gotten the virus across the city, however, and public health officials have repeatedly pointed out that the virus doesn’t discriminate.
Monkeypox can spread through direct or indirect contact with the virus’ painful, distinctive pimplelike rash. It most often spreads through sex. That could be a problem at Market Days, said Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward.
“It’s kind of a love fest,” said Tunney, who is gay and represents the area where the festival will occur.
Market Days is set on Halsted Street in the Northalsted neighborhood, previously 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 pulls in people from all over, especially across the Midwest, Tunney said.
This time around, though, anonymous intimate contact “probably isn’t the right way to act,” Tunney said, adding that people should avoid mixing drugs and alcohol at the festival, too.
“Just use some common sense,” Tunney said.
The city is better positioned to respond to monkeypox than it was during the large LGBTQ-focused Chicago Pride festival and International Mr. Leather conference, says Dr. Aniruddha Hazra, an infectious disease physician at Howard Brown Health Center and the University of Chicago Medicine.
“It’s much easier and much less cumbersome to send a monkeypox test,” Hazra said. A major jump in public awareness, growing access to vaccines and new federal protocols for prescribing effective antiviral drugs have also bolstered the virus response, he said.
Still, Hazra expects to continue to see case counts rise after Market Days. All mass gatherings have the potential to spread contagious diseases, last week’s Lollapalooza music festival with COVID-19 included, he said. But while risk can never be eliminated, harm can be reduced.
“The first thing folks should know is that they can have a good time,” Hazra said. “There are ways to protect your health and still enjoy yourself.”
Gay and bisexual men should think about with whom and where they are getting intimate this weekend, Hazra said. People should have open and honest conversations about monkeypox with their intimate partners, he added.
And in crowded spaces, like dance clubs, where people might be rubbing up against one another, “think about putting a shirt on,” Hazra said.
The city’s top doctor had her own advice.
“Turn on the lights before you turn off the lights,” Arwady said, encouraging people to check for rashes and discuss monkeypox risks with potential sexual partners.
Avoiding contact with the virus’ rash, which can appear throughout the body and around the genitals, is an essential way to avoid getting monkeypox, she added.
To make sure people are thinking about the disease and how to protect themselves from it, the CDPH has printed 10,000 palm cards and 1,000 posters that share information, Arwady said.
Banners will be posted at gates, informational videos will be playing in bars and educators will be posted at entrances to answer questions and point people to resources. The city even got popular gay comedian Matteo Lane to make a public safety announcement on monkeypox for the festival, Arwady said.
When the official festival events end at 10 p.m. each day, many attendees will head to large dance socials called circuit parties.
“If you combine a Broadway show and a rave together, that would be 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 at the Aragon Ballroom, which can fit 5,000 people. Sunday’s event is almost sold out, too, Martinez said. Resale tickets are going for around $100 online.
At the parties, attendees go all out 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, though people can find space on balconies, he added.
“We’re trying to do as much education as possible for the people coming into town,” Martinez said. CircuitMOM Productions is sharing information on where people can get vaccinated across its website and social media, urging people with symptoms to not come to the party and telling guests who want to have sex that they will need to do so elsewhere.
The group also added extra air conditioning so people can dance comfortably if they want to wear extra layers, Martinez said. The event should be safe because most monkeypox transmission occurs through sex, not through the casual contact that might occur at a party, he added.
“We’re a dance party for people to dance. We’re not a bathhouse,” said Martinez, who shared frustration with what he believes is unclear public health messaging around monkeypox.
Casual brushes with others are unlikely to transmit the disease, but people need to make sure their sexual contact is safe, Massimo Pacilli, CDPH deputy commissioner of disease control, told the Tribune. Festival attendees should avoid sharing drinks and vapes, he added.
Outside events are less risky than indoor events, Pacilli said. And while layering isn’t always en vogue at Market Days, it might be a good idea to dress up in tight quarters.
“Spacing and a layer of clothing is actually good enough to do the job here,” he said. “The more the crowding, the more it’s time to put a shirt on.”
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Howard Brown will host monkeypox vaccination clinics during Market Days at the Cell Block bar from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with walk-in slots available from 3 to 5 p.m., spokesperson Erik Roldan said. To be eligible for a shot, you must meet CDPH criteria and be an Illinois resident, he said.
The highly coveted shots are in short supply across the city and country. Chicago’s health department recently said new doses will be used to vaccinate as many at-risk people as possible, likely leading to delays in people getting their second shot.
Many people from nearby Midwestern states with little to no vaccine stock will likely be pursuing vaccination during the festival, Howard Brown clinician Hazra said.
He hopes that the city will vaccinate anyone at risk — which the CDPH currently says includes men who have sex with multiple or anonymous men — and will request even more vaccine doses from the federal government to compensate for the out-of-towners.
For more important information on monkeypox and the most up-to-date data on the virus’ spread in Chicago, visit the Chicago Department of Public Health’s monkeypox facts page.
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