Chicago officials are planning to deal with the monkey epidemic ahead of the Market Days festival

Amidst the bright lights and booming music of market days, one thing will stick with the people dancing in the clubs and stages of this weekend’s street festival: banners, posters and looping videos of monkeys telling you how to avoid smallpox.

As the LGBTQ-centric Northalted Market Days street festival brings you tens of thousands of people to Chicago, let’s not forget the spreading monkeypox virus. But before the party begins, doctors, health experts and festival organizers are sharing their concerns and safety tips.

The Biden administration is expected to declare monkeypox a public health emergency on Thursday.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arvady said she was “thrilled” to see the federal sign because it should speed up the delivery of more doses of the vaccine and provide “more flexibility in funding” because Chicago has seen “zero (federal) to deal with MPV at this point.”

The festival features a large DJ dance floor. It attracts singers, comedians and drag stars for its official events. According to festival chairman Mark Lieberson, more than 100,000 people come each year to flood Halsted Street.

“Your bars and streets are busy. It’s just more people in different areas,” said Lieberson, owner of North Halsted’s Elixir, Hydrate and Replay bars.

The Northalsted Business Alliance, which hosts the festival, is working with health officials to send out disease notifications during the festival, he said. The neighborhood’s coordinated response to the monkeypox virus is reminiscent of its response to the AIDS epidemic.

“This community really has a long history of working together to solve health issues,” Lieberson said.

Health officials say most of the cases they’ve seen appear to have been sexually transmitted, particularly between men. As health officials stress the importance of public education and personal risk management to control the spread of the virus—vaccines remain relatively scarce and are a priority for those at high risk.

However, the cancellation of market days was not considered, Arvadi said. Given that monkeypox doesn’t spread at bar gatherings or street parties, “we don’t think it’s fair to say we don’t do it at all. We know that opt-out messages are not successful. We have a lot of information on this.”

However, he said: “Now it is necessary to be careful. Currently having multiple or anonymous sexual partners would be more dangerous in this situation.

Festival organizers and public health officials are asking people with symptoms of monkeypox, including an undiagnosed rash and flu-like symptoms, to stay away from the festival, he added. Lieberson thinks the virus is still contained.

“This is not something that can be caught easily,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity for people to continue to enjoy life and live safely.”

The number of cases of monkeypox in Chicago rose to 459 on Thursday after the governor. JB Pritzker declared the outbreak a public health emergency on Monday.

According to the Department of Public Health, in Chicago, the virus has been detected mostly among gay and bisexual men, a trend that has spread across the country and around the world. Other people may have contracted the virus across the city, but public health officials have repeatedly emphasized that the virus does not discriminate.

Monkeypox can be transmitted by direct or indirect contact with the virus’ painful, especially acne-like rashes. It is usually transmitted through sexual contact. That can be a problem on market days, Old said. Tom Tunney, Chapter 44.

“It’s kind of a love fest,” said Tunney, who is gay and represents the area where the festival will be held.

Market days take place on Halsted Street in the Northalsted neighborhood formerly known as Boystown, which Tunney describes as a “tourist mecca” for LGBTQ+ people across the country. The festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and has been an important part of the local gay community for decades. It draws people from all over, especially the Midwest, Tunney said.

But this time, anonymous intimacy “may not be the right way to go about it,” Tunney said, adding that people shouldn’t mix drugs and alcohol at the festival.

“Use some common sense,” Tunney said.

The city hosts the largest LGBTQ-oriented Chicago Pride festival and the International Mr. Skin Conference, says Dr. Aniruddha Hazra, an infectious diseases physician at Howard Brown Health Center and University of Chicago Medicine.

“Sending a test for monkeypox is much easier and less cumbersome,” Hazra said. A big jump in public awareness, increased access to vaccines and new federal protocols for prescribing effective antiviral drugs have also boosted the response to the virus, he said.

However, Hazra expects the number of cases to increase after market days. All mass gatherings have the potential to spread infectious diseases, including COVID-19 at last week’s Lollapalooza music festival, he said. But risk can never be eliminated, but 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 have fun.”

Gay and bisexual men should think about who and where they’re having sex this weekend, Hazra said. People should have open and honest conversations with their intimate partners about monkeypox, he added.

In crowded places, such as dance clubs, where people can rub against each other, “think about wearing a shirt,” Hazra said.

The town’s chief physician had his own advice.

“Turn the lights on before you turn them off,” Arvadi said, urging people to check for rashes and discuss the risk of monkeypox with potential sex partners.

Avoiding contact with the virus rash, which can appear all over the body and around the genitals, is an important way to prevent 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 to share information, Arwadi said.

Banners will be posted at the gates, informational videos will be played at the bars, and educators will be posted at the entrances to answer questions and point people to resources. The city even hired popular gay comedian Matteo Lane to make a public safety announcement about monkeypox for the festival, Arvadi said.

When the official festival activities end at 10pm each day, many participants head to large dance parties known as district parties.

“If you could put a Broadway show and a song together, it would be us,” said Edwin Martinez, director of operations for CircuitMOM Productions, which plans circuit parties and other events.

The organization sold out Saturday night’s party at the 5,000-seat Aragon Ballroom. Sunday’s event is also nearly sold out, Martinez said. Resale tickets are $100 online.

At the parties, the participants go out according to tradition, he said. Saturday’s event has a retro video game theme. Sunday’s theme is “rodeo”. The dance floors are packed every year, but people can find seats in the balconies, he added.

“We’re trying to provide as much education as possible for people coming into town,” Martinez said. CircuitMOM Productions is sharing information on its website and social media about where people can get vaccinated, encouraging people with symptoms to stay away from the party and telling guests who want to have sex to do so elsewhere.

The group also added additional air conditioning so people can dance comfortably if they want to wear extra layers, Martinez said. The event must be safe because most cases of monkeypox are transmitted sexually, not through casual contact, which can happen at a party, he added.

“We are a dance party where people can dance. We’re not a bathhouse,” said Martinez, who was frustrated by what he thought were unclear public health messages surrounding monkeypox.

Casual brushes with others can’t transmit the disease, but people should make sure their sex is safe, Massimo Pacilli, CDPH’s deputy commissioner for disease control, told the Tribune. Festival goers should avoid sharing drinks and vapes, he added.

Outdoor events are less dangerous than indoor events, Pasili said. While layering isn’t always fashionable on market days, it can be a good idea to dress up in tight spaces.

“There’s enough space and layers of clothing to get the job done here,” he said. “The bigger the crowd, the longer the dress.”

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Howard Brown will hold market-day monkey vaccination clinics at the Cell Block bar on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., with check-in hours from 3 to 5 p.m., said spokesman Eric Roldan. To be eligible for the shot, you must meet CDPH criteria and be an Illinois resident, he said.

There is a shortage of the most in-demand staff across the city and country. Chicago’s health department recently said the new doses will be used to vaccinate as many at-risk people as possible, delaying people getting a second shot.

Howard Brown Clinic’s Hazra said more people from nearby Midwestern states with little or no vaccine stockpile could be vaccinated.

He hopes the city will vaccinate everyone at risk — currently CDPH includes men who have sex with multiple or anonymous men — and is asking the federal government to reimburse out-of-towners for higher doses of the vaccine.

For more important information about monkeypox and the latest information on the spread of the virus in Chicago, visit the Chicago Department of Public Health. Monkey pox fact sheet.

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter: @jakesheridan_

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