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Facing record COVID cases, event planners in Bloomington-Normal weigh risks and social needs

Chamber of Commerce Gala 2019.jpg
McLean County Chamber of Commerce
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Members of organizations across McLean County are yearning to get back to in-person events even as the omicron variant peaks in the community. This photo is from 2019.

It's tough to decide whether to hold large events right now. As Bloomington-Normal continues to register record numbers of COVID cases, there's a risk of creating a super-spreader event.

McLean County is among the very highest of U.S. counties in per capita cases and positivity rates of the coronavirus. And those are only the people who take officially reported tests.

It is tough, said Charlie Moore, head of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, whose upcoming gala is scheduled for early next month. Moore said so far, it's a go.

"We have been told or (are) aware that hopefully the peak does hit, within the next week and a half to two weeks. So, we are continuing to watch that closely," he said.

Moore said the chamber is committed to holding the gala. They really want to. But you gotta be real.

"Now if some other external factors don't allow that to happen, or we need to make some adjustments, we have a backup date ready to go. That's all been pre-thought and we're set to play," said Moore, adding that backup is in July, though.

Sometimes, there isn't enough time to reschedule. Tony Morstatter is head of the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington- Normal. He said the agency's big annual fundraiser came as omicron was cycling up. He said they didn't have enough lead time to change.

"As we were tiptoeing towards our annual 'Be Great' breakfast, the environment that we were in was safer at the early stages of the planning of that. And unfortunately, there were some milestones within our agreement or contract that caused us some challenges," said Morstatter.

The contract made it tough to cancel, and the club would have lost a lot of money, so he said they did the best they could by taking extra precautions and shortening the event.

"You know, we made sure that everything was pre-set, there wasn't a lot of movement throughout the event. The breakfast itself was all pre-set. That way, we didn't have servers, people joined us and we're in and out less than an hour," said Morstatter.

The Chamber of Commerce gala next month is sold out at 600 people. That's a lot of people to put into one big ballroom at Illinois State University and still expect to avoid spreading the virus. The highly contagious nature of omicron makes it worse. Health experts have said at least one in six people in central Illinois have COVID-19 with no symptoms, which suggests attending a big gathering can amount to a roll of the dice.

Illinois State University just postponed its Martin Luther King dinner by about a month.

"I think this is the kind of thing that keeps people up at night. Our planning people worry about this sort of thing all the time," said ISU spokesperson Eric Jome. "It's a very difficult decision to make. It's easy to second guess and really it's something that has to be watched constantly."

ISU is keeping attendance at about 300 in a room that has a capacity of close to 900. The Chamber of Commerce limit of 600 is for the same room, the Brown Ballroom, in the Bone Student Center. While tables may be at an appropriate distance, people will still be sitting with others who do not live in their own bubble. And, when you get a drink and mingle, the natural desire to chat may make people less than rigorous about safety.

"We've got people at our events who are going around and reminding people of the mask policy," said Jome.

These decisions are more than just a strict calculation of safety though. Normal Mayor Chris Koos recently said a little isolation and extra care in masking and staying only in small groups will help, while admitting it's tough emotionally to continue that restraint.

"You know, people are worn out by this and I'm the same way. But we've got to get on top of this," said Koos.

Charlie Moore with the said it is difficult to balance the scales.

"There's fatigue with masking, fatigue with hand washing, fatigue with not shaking hands, there's fatigue with not distancing. But on the other hand, while that fatigue exists, the omicron variant exists as well," said Moore.

He said the chamber will mitigate risk as much as possible — even offering incentives for people to observe good safety protocols. And they've polled the organization. Moore said members want to go ahead with a gala, possibly just to avoid further stress that society as a whole has suffered.

"We have all suffered in the last couple of years, from the shutdown, to the 'at home', to just trials and tribulations," said Moore.

That sense of a need for togetherness may carry the day for a lot of events. Morstatter said it boils down to simple human contact, noting "Being able to see somebody interact and have that social interaction. It does have a positive impact on us socially."

Timing matters, too. Moore said the chamber's traditional early-in-the-year date for the gala is precisely because winter time blues make it sweeter and perhaps even more important to celebrate the successes of businesses in Bloomington- Normal.

All of this means life will remain complicated both for event planners, and for the people who have to decide whether to attend the celebrations and fundraisers.

"The deep breaths and the big gulps, I think they happen pretty regularly lately," said Morstatter.

And everyone is hoping the omicron wave passes soon and the choices get just a smidge easier to make.

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