CHAMPAIGN – Champaign County health officials are urging caution ahead of the upcoming NCAA tournament, where the University of Illinois men’s basketball team will compete for the first time in eight years.
With fans fired up from a series of recent wins, officials are worried that packed sports bars and watch parties could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.
“We are on a very good path right now and I would hate to see one restaurant or one bar or one gathering at somebody’s house be responsible for hundreds of cases in our community,” says Awais Vaid, Deputy Director of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD).
Fighting Illini fans celebrated three back-to-back wins last weekend, resulting in a seat at the NCAA tournament, which begins March 18. The team is currently ranked second in the Big Ten Conference.
Vaid says there’s no evidence yet that those celebrations have led to an uptick in coronavirus cases, but he says it usually takes two weeks to identify such a spike.
While fans may be gearing up for more watch parties and celebrations, Vaid says it’s important to remember that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
“This is not a normal year, this is not normal times,” he says. “We have to adapt and be smarter about how we do things, how we socialize.”
County health officials are also concerned over the spread of the highly-contagious B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the U.K. They say the variant is responsible for the majority of cases on the University of Illinois campus right now, and basketball fans should keep that in mind if they choose to gather for in-person watch parties.
“It is concerning that it’s spreading much faster than we can actually vaccinate people,” Vaid says.
Although nearly a quarter of Champaign County’s vaccine-eligible residents are now fully vaccinated, Vaid says the county has not yet reached herd immunity.
“So if you are going to socialize with people, the recommendation from public health is going to be that doing so outdoors, where there is no worry of ventilation (issues), is the safest option,” he says.
If you plan to attend an indoor gathering at a friend’s house or at a restaurant or bar, Vaid advises limiting social interaction to people within your social circle or people who have already been vaccinated. He also says keeping groups as small as possible and opening windows to increase circulation can help prevent the spread of the virus.
According to Vaid, state inspectors are keeping an eye on local bars and restaurants to ensure compliance with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Phase 4 guidelines. Penalties include the loss of a liquor license. If it looks like a bar or restaurant is over capacity limits, Vaid says anyone can call the University campus police or the non-emergency line for the Champaign or Urbana police departments, depending on where the incident occurs.
The Fighting Illini will face off against Drexel University on Friday, March 19 in Indianapolis.
Dana is a reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHCronin