Leading up to this month, many of us were wringing our hands and pacing our halls in anticipation of more than 30,000 students returning to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois campus. Testing for faculty, staff, and students is mandatory, and must be completed more than once a week. We all anxiously awaited data that we knew would reaffirm our own beliefs: that it’s going to be a shit show, or it’s not a big deal. Between August 16th and August 30th, there were 783 new reported cases of COVID-19, according to the data reported on the U of I’s COVID-19 data tracking website. To put this number in context, the University of North Carolina rescinded in person classes after 130 positive test results.
In our estimation, the hand wringing and hall pacing was warranted: 783 cases exceed the number of active cases we’ve seen in Champaign County at any given time. The shit is here, but perhaps hasn’t quite hit the fan yet. In our estimation, we are right to continue to be concerned, and to continue to hold the U of I accountable for the health of this community.
However, the U of I is not our singular COVID-19 boogeyman. Recent reporting indicates an exponential increase in cases in rural America, which includes rural Illinois. Just last week, Governor Pritzker announced a return to more stringent guidelines for a number of counties because of such exponential growth.
Though C-U is not technically a rural community, we are surrounded by them. Cases there are rising as people travel from rural areas to densely populated areas for work, shopping, and medical services. They have also risen because people have been travelling to rural areas, oftentimes across state lines, because vacationing in less populated areas is perceived to be safer. To this we must ask: Safer for whom? As privileged residents of C-U, we have to do better to protect those around us, even if others are not extending the same.
Though we may think of ourselves as micro-urban, to people in more densely populated areas like Chicagoland, we are a rural community. We are lucky that our region currently has the lowest positivity rate in the state, but that is not guaranteed. In fact, that may well be the reason East Central Illinois is appealing to out of town visitors as well as locals who want to host celebrations and family gatherings.
Take, for instance, weddings. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve heard from several sources that there are venues in Champaign County (and the surrounding areas) hosting weddings that exceed the state and local guidelines for 50 or fewer people at a venue, and that couples to be wed are expecting out of town visitors.
Perhaps you’ve seen the story about the wedding in rural Maine attended by 65 people that led to 87 new COVID-19 cases. We’ve seen something similar happen on a smaller scale with an unofficial prom in Mahomet. That the venues are encouraging this behavior and are flagrantly disregarding the guidelines is just as troubling as the U of I’s 679 new cases. It is further insulting to those who are doing their part to keep our community safe. We know that the largest employers in C-U are mostly public-facing; how many wedding attendees interact with other people on a daily basis? How many work in public health, in hospitals or doctors’ offices? How many out of town guests will potentially infect C-U residents, or get infected themselves?
We know that most transmissions happen via droplets and aerosols, and that the risk for spread is greatly increased in indoor spaces. Holding a wedding ceremony outdoors, but holding the reception indoors is intentionally misunderstanding the guidelines. Keepings tables six feet apart does not ensure people will actually be six feet apart. Not limiting the tables to six or fewer diners is also in defiance of the guidelines (maximum six per table), and obviously doesn’t mitigate the spread of droplets. At Smile Politely, we have seen evidence that some venues and betrothed couples are offering plated dinners (good), but that people will sit eight to a table (not good). We’ve seen that the lack of masks in outdoor and indoor dining situations has led to increased transmission; what makes anyone think that a wedding will be any different? We’d argue that a traditional wedding reception would, in fact, be worse.
We are incredibly sympathetic to the fact that businesses are in terrible positions, facing great financial losses and potential closure. That does not excuse defying the guidelines, and in fact only increases the potential for financial loss because of the threat of infection and city and health department sanctioning. We also understand the pain, grief, and difficulty in having to adjust your dream wedding plans to accommodate the situation.
But people are literally dying. And they are dying alone; family members are not able to be with them as they struggle to take their final breath. Family members cannot grieve together, or hold funerals for their beloved. The United States has lost 180,000 people to COVID-19 — that is just about the entire population of Champaign County. Imagine every single person in Champaign, Urbana, Mahomet, Savoy, Rantoul, St. Joseph, Ogden, Homer, Fisher, Penfield, Tolono — and everywhere in between — gone. Dead.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
As we’ve seen on the national and local level, there is something fundamentally broken with the way we receive, process, and act on information. Our local news isn’t doing enough to fact check and dismiss falsities from the Trump Administration. Our Senators have advocated for us, but our representative in the House (who tested positive), seems to think that it’s okay to offer up his staff for in person consultations with constituents, and that in-person debates are a good idea. Testing in C-U is limited, though still better than other parts of the state and country. Masks have been proven to seriously mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but we can’t all agree on when and where and how to wear them, so the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department has worked with the cities of Champaign and Urbana to enforce the practice. What might seem to some as common sense just isn’t for others. Even if we think this nation is too fractured to be repaired, we must work harder on the local level, as a community, to find some common sense.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.