CHAMPAIGN — Not only has COVID-19 disrupted high school graduation ceremonies — and the gifts that are part of a hefty one-time haul for students — it’s put graduation parties on hold too.
“May and June are usually one of our busiest seasons,” said Kennedy Taylor, an assistant officer manager for Cook Party Rentals.
Now it’s one of Cook’s slowest seasons ever, she said.
“Some are just canceling with a date to be determined. Others are canceling and saying 'We’ll figure it out later,'” she said. “The majority are rescheduling for, say, August or September. And a lot have just canceled.”
She said some events haven’t been postponed, with some customers trying to reduce the party size and spread guests out.
“I’ve had people that are still doing events. Not very many, but they’re taking social-distancing precautions,” she said.
Cook said her business could benefit from the addition of outdoor seating to the next phase of reopening in Illinois.
“A lot of companies, as soon as they announced that restaurants could do outdoor seating, there were a lot calling for tents, tables and chairs,” Taylor said.
Graduation parties often include a small windfall for the graduating senior in checks from friends and family.
Julie Roehm, the chief marketing and experience officer for Party City, which has a location in Champaign, said she hopes graduation parties aren’t canceled this year.
“As the mother of a senior in high school, I certainly hope not,” she said. “He could use every check he gets.”
At Party City, she said there’s interest in graduation-related supplies, even if parties may look different or be rescheduled.
Party City has its own graduation kits, including “Commencement in a Box,” where grads can walk on a stage, or “Drive-By Graduation in a Box,” where the grad can decorate their car.
The kits include decorations for cars, balloons, banners and other party products.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest,” Roehm said.
Graduation items are the second-most-clicked banner on Party City’s website, behind the one for curbside pickup, Roehm said.
“People really want to celebrate, but they want to be safe,” she said.
Party City is planning to open all its stores in Illinois on June 5, but Roehm said she expects the curbside-pickup option to remain popular.
“People are going to be cautious for some period of time,” she said. “There’s a level of convenience that’s going to keep this going.”
She also said customers are getting more creative with their balloon purchases when they can have them delivered.
Customers used to be “limited in the number of balloons they can order by what fits in their car,” Roehm said. “With same-day delivery, our delivery drivers have mini-vans, and we can bring more than one vehicle. That’s been fun to see, when given freedom, what they will do.”
At Elite Entertainment in Champaign, owner Ryan Mennenga said they don’t do many high school graduation parties. But he said that just like other event businesses, the coronavirus and the stay-at-home order have “just completely devastated” the event business.
“Any and all weddings and events, University of Illinois events, proms, everything has been either cancelled or postponed until later this year,” he said. “We have no income coming in whatsoever.”
Elite Entertainment was able to get Paycheck Protection Program funds, Mennenga said, and “we’ll be fine, but there’s a lot of businesses that are hurting.”
The next phase of the Restore Illinois plan allows for groups of up to 10, and then Phase 4 allows for groups of up to 50.
The state is currently not planning to allow groups larger than that until a vaccine or readily available treatment option is developed, which isn’t expected until next year.
So at this point, Mennenga is hoping Gov. J.B. Pritzker relaxes the gathering size limit before then.
“Until he allows people to have more than 50 or 100 guests, there are very few events you can do,” Mennenga said.