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Rich Miller: I risked political Illinois State Fair events -- and got lucky

By Rich Miller
updated: 8/31/2021 10:47 PM

The week of Governor's Day and Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair is always packed with political events. And this year was no exception. It's impossible to attend them all, so one has to pick and choose and go with the flow.

After Governor's Day at the fairgrounds ended on Wednesday, Aug. 17, I worked for a bit in my air-conditioned pickup truck and then headed downtown to House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's event at a popular tavern. The ceiling fans were on full blast, it wasn't wall to wall people, so I stayed for a bit and then decided I should head home to let my dog Oscar out before returning to the fairgrounds to meet friends. And since Illinois Republican Party Chair Don Tracy's event was on my route home, I figured I'd stop by to see who was there.

Tracy has a huge, gorgeous home on a big plot of land by Lake Springfield, but it was so hot that day that his event was held indoors.

Those weren't my first indoor State Fair events. Senate President Harmon's caucus held a party downtown Tuesday that was both indoors and outdoors, but the party inside wasn't crowded by the time I got there, doors were open for ventilation and at least some folks were wearing masks. I spent most of the time outside, but popped in for a few minutes to briefly chat with a couple of people for a story I was working on. I attended another event later that night inside and ended up having dinner with several (vaccinated and very pleasant) people on the premises.

Wednesday's Republican event on the lake was mostly confined to a large room packed with people, including some (like GOP gubernatorial candidates Darren Bailey and Gary Rabine) who have publicly said they aren't vaccinated against COVID-19. There were no ceiling fans, the doors were closed and the air conditioner was having real trouble keeping up. It was hot and close. And nobody, of course, was wearing masks.

I didn't stay longer than 15 or 20 minutes, and talked to a few people about potential stories, said hello to others like Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, then left. I called a close friend on my way home to say that I'd probably just made a mistake. I'm fully vaccinated, but if I was going to get one of those "breakthrough" cases, that was going to be the place.

On Friday, Leader McConchie, who is also fully vaccinated, announced that he had a mild breakthrough case. I received a text message later that evening from someone else who was at the lake party at the same time as me to tell me he had been exposed to the virus and suggested that I get tested.

I never developed any symptoms beyond a mild sore throat that I often get at the state fair because of dust, pollen and various, um, activities. I took a rapid test on Saturday and it came up negative. Those tests can have high false positives, so I got a PCR test at Walgreens Sunday and was told the results could take as long as 3-5 business days. On Tuesday, tired of waiting, I took one of those University of Illinois saliva tests.

That may sound like overkill, and at times I thought I was being too paranoid, especially since I'm vaxed and probably won't get very sick even if I do catch it. But I wanted to make extra sure that I was not at all contagious ahead of this week's special legislative session to deal with redistricting and possibly a major bill on energy policy. If I couldn't go, I needed to know as soon as possible so I could make other plans.

To be clear, I don't blame Don Tracy or anyone else for being exposed. Not even one iota. I chose to walk into every one of those indoor events. That's on me.

The State Fair is such an integral part of our state's political culture that I think many of us desperately wanted to latch on to some sort of normalcy last week after a year and a half of nothingness. But this clearly ain't over -- even though Illinois is still doing much better than the southern states -- and many of us should've known better.

My story has a happy ending, by the way. Three tests, three negative results. Bring on the special session. But lesson learned.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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