As Chicago's Market Days Festival Approaches, Doctors and Organizers Share Monkeypox Concerns and Advice: 'Use Some Common Sense'

Amidst the pulsing lights and blaring music of Market Days, people dancing in the clubs and stages of the street festival this weekend will be highlighting something: banners, posters and looping videos telling them how to avoid monkeypox.

As the LGBTQ-focused Northalsted Market Days street festival draws tens of thousands of people to Chicago, the spread of the monkeypox virus will remain top of mind. But before the party begins, doctors, health experts and festival organizers share their concerns and tips on how to stay safe.

The Biden administration is expected to declare the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency. as early as Thursday.

At a news conference Thursday to discuss the city’s efforts to control the spread of monkeypox on Market Days, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she was “pleased” to see the federal designation because it should speed the delivery of more vaccine doses. and provide “more flexibility in funding,” as Chicago has seen “zero (federals) to combat MPV at this time.”

The festival flaunts a large DJ-dance area. Bring in singers, comedians, and drag stars for your official events. More than 100,000 people come each year to flood Halsted Street, said Mark Liberson, the festival’s president.

“You have bars and busy streets. It’s just more people in more different areas,” said Liberson, who owns North Halsted’s Elixir, Hydrate and Replay bars.

Northalsted Business Alliance, the organization that runs the festival, is working with health officials to push messages about the disease during the festival, he said. The neighborhood’s concerted response to the monkeypox virus reminds him of his 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 have seen, the virus appears to have been transmitted through sexual contact, primarily between men. Health officials are therefore emphasizing the importance of public education and individual risk management, along with vaccines that remain relatively scarce and are prioritized for high-risk individuals, to control the spread of the virus.

But canceling Market Days was not a consideration, Arwady said. Since monkeypox doesn’t seem to spread at bar gatherings or street parties, “we don’t think it sends the right message to say we’re not doing this at all. We know that abstinence messages tend to be unsuccessful. We have a lot of data on that.”

However, he said, “It is a time to be careful. Having multiple or anonymous sexual partners at this time would be a higher risk in this setting.”

Festival organizers and public health officials are asking people with symptoms of monkeypox, including undiagnosed skin rashes and mild flu-like symptoms, not to attend the festival, it added. Liberson believes the virus can still be contained.

“It’s not something that’s easy to catch,” he said. “I think there is 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. JB Pritzker declared the spread of the disease a statewide public health emergency on Monday.

In Chicago, the virus has been detected primarily among gay and bisexual men, a trend that coincides with the spread across the country and the world. data from the public health department shows other people can and have contracted the virus throughout the city, however, and public health officials have repeatedly noted that the virus does not discriminate.

Monkeypox can be spread through direct or indirect contact with the virus’ distinctive, painful, pimple-like rash. It is most often spread through sex. That could be a problem on Market Days, Ald said. Tom Tunney, District 44.

“It’s kind of a love party,” said Tunney, who is gay and represents the area where the party will take place.

Market Days takes place 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 celebrates 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 the Midwest, Tunney said.

This time, however, anonymous intimate contact is “probably not the right thing to do,” Tunney said, adding that people should also avoid mixing drugs and alcohol at the festival.

“Just use some common sense,” Tunney said.

The city is better positioned to respond to monkeypox than it is during Chicago’s big LGBTQ Pride festival and international Mr. Leather conference, says Dr. Aniruddha Hazra, an infectious disease physician at Howard Brown Health Center and University of Medicine of Chicago.

“It’s much easier and much less cumbersome to send in a monkeypox test,” Hazra said. A huge leap in public awareness, increased access to vaccines and new federal protocols for prescribing effective antiviral drugs have also bolstered the response to the virus, she said.

Still, Hazra expects to continue to see an increase in the number of cases after Market Days. All mass gatherings have the potential to spread contagious diseases, including last week’s Lollapalooza music festival with COVID-19, she said. But while the risk can never be eliminated, the 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 they will be intimate with this weekend, Hazra said. People should have open and honest conversations about monkeypox with their intimate partners, she added.

And in crowded spaces, like dance clubs, where people may be rubbing up against each other, “think putting on a shirt,” Hazra said.

The best doctor in town had his own advice.

“Turn the lights on before you turn them off,” Arwady said, encouraging people to check for rashes and discuss the risks of monkeypox with potential sexual partners.

Avoiding contact with the virus rash, which can appear all over the body and around the genitals, is an essential way to avoid contracting monkeypox, he added.

To make sure people are thinking about the disease and how to protect themselves from it, CDPH has printed 10,000 palm cards and 1,000 posters that share information, Arwady said.

Banners will be posted on doors, informational videos will be played 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 do a public safety announcement about monkeypox for the festival, Arwady said.

When the official festival events end at 10 p.m. each day, many attendees will head to big dance socials called circuit parties.

“If you put a Broadway show and a rave together, that would be us,” said Edwin Martinez, chief operating officer of CircuitMOM Productions, a company that plans circuit parties and other events.

The organization has already sold out the tickets for the party on Saturday night at the Aragón Ballroom, with capacity for 5,000 people. Sunday’s event is also nearly sold out, Martinez said. Resale tickets are around $100 online.

At parties, attendees go all out with costumes, he said. Saturday’s event has a retro video game theme. Sunday’s theme is “at the rodeo.” Dance floors fill up every year, though people can find space on balconies, she added.

“We are trying to provide as much education as possible to the people who come to the city,” Martinez said. CircuitMOM Productions is sharing information about where people can get vaccinated on its website and social media, urging people with symptoms not to attend the party, and telling guests who want to have sex 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 must be safe because most monkeypox transmission occurs through sex, not through casual contact that might occur at a party, she added.

“We are a dance party for people to dance. We are not a bath house,” said Martinez, who shared his frustration with what he believes are unclear public health messages about monkeypox.

Casual brushes with other people are unlikely to spread the disease, but people should make sure their sexual contact is safe, Massimo Pacilli, CDPH’s deputy commissioner for disease control, told the Tribune. Festival goers should avoid sharing drinks and vaporizers, he added.

Outdoor events are less risky than indoor events, Pacilli said. And while layers aren’t always in style on Market Days, it can be a good idea to dress up in tight spaces.

“The space and a layer of clothing are good enough to get the job done here,” he said. “The more it is crowded, the more it is time to put on a T-shirt.”

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Howard Brown will host monkeypox vaccination clinics during market days at the Cell Block bar from noon to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday, with shifts available from 3 to 5 pm, spokesman Erik Roldan said. To be eligible for a vaccine, he must meet CDPH’s criteria and be an Illinois resident, he said.

Highly coveted shots are in short supply in 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 causing delays in people getting their second shot.

Many people in nearby Midwestern states with little or no vaccine stockpile are likely to get vaccinated during the festival, said Hazra, a Howard Brown clinician.

He hopes the city will vaccinate anyone at risk, which CDPH currently says includes men who have sex with multiple anonymous men, and will request even more vaccine doses from the federal government to compensate outsiders.

For more important information about monkeypox and the most up-to-date data on the spread of the virus in Chicago, visit the Chicago Department of Public Health website. monkeypox fact page.

Twitter: @jakesheridan_

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