The founder of TBOX, a pioneer of sorts for Chicago bar crawls, knows that groups of drunken people walking through Wrigleyville together isn’t exactly a pandemic-friendly activity. But Christopher Festa didn’t want to snap 24-straight years of bar crawls and asked the city for his annual permit. TBOX, or the Twelve Bars of Christmas, is a polarizing event for Chicagoans, full of ugly holiday sweaters making their ways up and down Clark Street.
The city denied Festa’s application. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events isn’t keying in on TBOX. DCASE won’t issue special event permits to any organizers of outdoor festivals, athletic events, or “non-essential markets” through the end of the year: “and that includes TBOX,” a city spokesperson says.
Festa isn’t happy, but sees the city’s point.
“My event is literally the exact opposite of social distancing,” he says. “It’s known for people making out all over the place, and sometimes we pour cereal into people’s mouths. Obviously those things would be the biggest crime in the world right now.”
TBOX started in 1996 as a way to generate business for bars when Chicago is cold and uninviting. Festa charges a flat rate, around $40, and a guide whisks a large group through several bars. The event has since grown from 12 bars to around 30. These taverns offer drink specials to bar crawl customers.
Though Festa is holding on to some hope that the event could move forward this year, he is well aware of the potential safety concerns in light of COVID-19. Unless there’s a Christmas miracle — say if scientists develop a COVID-19 vaccine which is widely distributed — Chicago will be without TBOX this year. The event was scheduled for December 12.
“I really wanted to have the event if there was a huge sentiment of people that would feel safe attending and that it would be a happy, lighthearted event — not something politicized, or with dark cloud of fear or concern over it,” Festa says. “I haven’t seen that atmosphere would be a festive one at this point, but I’m just keeping my options open.”
Festa says he mostly feels bad for bar owners who are struggling during the pandemic. With fans banned from Wrigley Field this season, the neighborhood around the Friendly Confines has been quieter. Bars have been emptier. The owner of Clark Street sports bar Slugger’s tells Block Club Chicago that business is down by 95 percent compared to last year.
Despite all signs pointing to a TBOX-free year, Festa says he thought it was worth applying anyway. Though he knows that it’s unlikely that circumstances will change enough for officials to allow the crawl to move forward, but in case they do, he says he’s on standby. He won’t, however, try to circumvent the city or hold an unofficial event.
Good luck if fans try to organize a clandestine crawl. There’s added pressure on the city to shut down events like TBOX, as Wrigleyville bar-goers have also recently been under the microscope. Patrons and establishments in the area have openly defied Chicago’s safety guidelines during the pandemic, and the neighborhood has developed a reputation for attracting younger customers who don’t think the restrictions apply to them. The city is so concerned about Wrigleyville that it denied the Chicago Cubs’ request to close Clark Street in front of the baseball stadium to allow street dining for the restaurants across the street at Hotel Zachary. The city didn’t want to encourage a street festival atmosphere.
Other safety issues have also plagued the long-running crawl. Chicago Twitter annually gathers around the police scanner to hear stories of vandalism. The most serious incident happened in 2014 when man attacked a fellow partier and TBOX participant with a broken bottle in the bathroom of now-shuttered Wrigleyville bar Red Ivy in 2014. The man plead guilty and was put on probation for one year.