August 22 will mark the fifth edition of Sundays on State, an effort to bring people back to Downtown Chicago by cutting off traffic to State Street between Lake and Madison, site of many familiar landmarks, including the Chicago Theater marquee. Before the emergence of the delta variant, Chicago officials and downtown stakeholders boasted that the city’s COVID-19 restrictions were looser compared to other central business districts across the country. Sundays on State exemplified the feeling that Chicago was on its way to revitalization.
But, as Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has noted, the delta variant has very much arrived in the city, and with 46.3 percent of the population not fully vaccinated, the surge threatens the progress made bringing downtown crowds back to pre-pandemic levels.
Sundays on State includes games, live performances, artists, vendors, and family-friendly activities. But part of the draw has also been restaurants: vendors include Harold’s Chicken Shack, Walnut Room, Happy Lobster, and Fat Shallot. Organizers originally sought to highlight Loop restaurants but found nearby businesses struggled with staffing. So they cast a wider net to bring in vendors from across the city. To sweeten the deal, there’s no participation fee.
On one given Sunday, around 100,000 people passed through the event during the eight hours it was open, says Chicago Loop Alliance President & CEO Michael Edwards. That represents 92 percent of traffic levels the area would have seen during a Sunday in 2019, he says. There are four more Sundays on State scheduled in 2021, Edwards is hopeful that being outdoors will keep the event safe as concerns about the delta variant continue to percolate.
Edwards talks about the need for an economic recovery for the district and how it’s important to draw a diverse crowd that truly represents Chicago. He mentions the reactions to George Floyd’s murder last year, and how community events can help healing. So far, Sundays on State has drawn attendees from 150 unique zip codes and 12 different states, according to on-site surveys.
“The Loop is an important part of everyone’s lives here in Chicagoland,” Edwards says.
It costs $400,000 to run the event for all eight weeks, Edwards says. The city put in $100,000; the rest comes from a mix of sponsorships and other sources, including special service area funds. The success of Sundays on State has inspired similar programs in other parts of the city. While Sundays on State is off this coming weekend, on Sunday, August 15, motor traffic will be closed along the Magnificent Mile between Pearson and Chicago for the Michigan Avenue Association’s “Meet Me On The Mile.” However, there were no food vendors listed for the event. Organizers hope both events will encourage shoppers to visit downtown stores. Edwards noticed several Sundays on State attendees carrying bags full of purchases with them, and that makes the businesses he represents happy.
Over on State, the lines were long at the Harold’s food truck parked in the middle of the street. The Loop Alliance wanted to have more trucks, but apparently there’s been a struggle with licensing. Edwards doesn’t know the specifics, but he says the city has fallen behind in giving food truck owners the proper licenses so they can participate. It’s reminiscent of last year when restaurants flooded the city with applications for extended outdoor patios.
One of the biggest challenges is combating misconceptions about the safety of Downtown Chicago, fed by misinformation and politically charged commentary. For Edwards, safety is a concern that’s not unique to Chicago and something it shares with other larger cities. But fear of the city is also cyclical. Edwards remembers the ‘80s when Chicago’s downtown wasn’t a friendly area. Holding a family-friendly event, he says, helps change people’s minds about coming downtown.
“You know how lucky you are to be able to sit in the middle of State Street?” Edwards recalls telling a young child last weekend. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Sundays on State, August 22, August 29, September 5, and September 12, on State Street between Lake and Madison.