First Weekend Back: Social media targets bars, student crowds

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Champaign-Urbana social-media community exploded in hundreds of comments under the Facebook and Reddit posts discussing a long line of people waiting at the entrance of one of the campus bars – Red Lion, on January 23, 2021.

On January 18, Tier 1 mitigation requirements were announced for all regions with a test positivity rate of 8% or higher for three days or more. Champaign County, however, is in Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois reopening plan, which allows indoor dining at bars and restaurants. 

So, most of the campus bars opened their doors during the weekend of January 23. That afternoon, two social media users shared on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook almost the same picture of a crowd of students in the line at the Red Lion bar.

One of those posters was Kyle Patterson, Champaign County Board chair. He wrote in the “Spotted in Chambana” Facebook group: “Students have been gone since thanksgiving, this is the first weekend of reduced restrictions and this is what happens.” 

Phase 4 guidance suggests maintaining social distancing, wearing face coverings or masks while on bar or restaurant premises, 10-person party limits and more. 

Many users said that they are not surprised to see this picture, and the city, the University of Illinois or the bars should control the situation. 

Jim Roberts, director of environmental health at the Champaign-Urbana public health district, said the guidelines don’t apply to public property. 

“Bars are responsible for enforcing face coverings and social distancing on their premises. Lines of people on public sidewalks are not part of the bar’s premises,” he said in an email to CU-CitizenAccess.

If bars are in violation of in-place rules, then the health district or the police department would investigate after receiving a complaint. 

“Last semester, compliance investigators checked in response to a complaint or spot checked,” he said. 

One of the “Spotted in Chambana” participants shared a picture from the local supermarket during Christmas, claiming that locals do not see their mistakes and asked, “to stop picking on bars and restaurants.” 

Last weekend, students started returning to the University of Illinois campus as the Spring 2021 semester officially began on January 25. Before that, on January 20, University Chancellor Robert J. Jones sent a mass mail asking students to limit their “in-person interactions to only the most essential activities,” excluding going out to the restaurants and bars from the list.

A commenter asked why Kyle Patterson, who shared this picture on Twitter and Facebook, “just goes on social media and tries to demean people,” instead of trying to solve the problem as a community leader. 

One Reddit user reported the situation to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District by sending the Reddit thread as documentation. 

Patterson provided CU-CitizenAccess with a statement:

“I am very proud and impressed by the tireless work that has been done to keep Champaign County residents safe during these unprecedented times.  Our public health departments, both CUPHD and the Champaign County Public Health Department, have done an outstanding job in enforcing IDPH directives, informing community members on best practices, keeping the community up to speed on current conditions and coordinating testing and vaccine distribution.  

We have also seen the Mayors of Champaign and Urbana, who serve as liquor commissioners for their cities, take strong steps to ensure safe conditions at local establishments, particularly in the campus town area.  Last fall, UIUC administration took bold and proactive steps to curb unsafe behaviors by a select number of students, and it is clear that most UIUC students have taken this guidance seriously and are doing their part to reduce the spread of the virus.  

Its incumbent on all of our residents in Champaign County to do their part in following public health guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19 and I believe the vast majority of residents are doing their part to slow the spread.”

Kyle Patterson
Champaign County Board Chair

Commenters were also trying to understand how the situation can be improved. They suggested limiting the entrance age to the bars to “21+,” or to prevent lines by switching to “online reservations for time slots.” 

Tier 1 mitigation rules state that “reservations required for each party,” and the party should be a “maximum of 4 people”. These requirements also mean that operation hours for the restaurants are limited from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. 

Region 6 has experienced 15 consecutive days under the 8% positivity rate threshold as of January 29, 2021. During the 2020 fall semester, county health officials said the community had reached a critical juncture during the pandemic around Thanksgiving, when the positivity rate was higher than 8% after case spikes in both the community and the university populations. 

CU-CitizenAccess previously reported COVID-19 complaints to the University revealed how widespread violations were during the fall semester. 

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