ROUNDUP: Chicago and Illinois brace for mounting COVID-19 deaths, adjust to new normal

Here’s everything you might have missed in week three of the pandemic as conditions remain dire on numerous fronts while promised federal aid may offer some relief.

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Welcome to our third weekly roundup of how the coronavirus crisis is playing out in Chicago and Illinois. City and state officials are making broad efforts to adjust to the new normal and a longer haul of social distancing while federal dollars promise some relief to schools, businesses, healthcare providers and government. But conditions remain dire on a number of fronts as the state is expected to peak in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the coming weeks. 

Topics: Local preparedness | Health care | Preparing for the peak | Social distancing crackdowns | Protecting first responders | Essential workers strike back | Lifelines for the most vulnerable | Rent and mortgage payments due | Unemployment | More local relief measures | Hate and race | Outbreaks behind bars | Schools | City and county services and policies | How are we paying for this? | Census and voting | Small businesses relief and demise | Legal weed still green | Roundup: Week two | Roundup: Week one | Have you taken our survey?

Masking the crisis 

Illinois officials continue to pull all the stops to prepare for a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations as the number of confirmed cases in the state more than doubled over the last week — a number that likely belies the true extent of the spread due to the limited availability of testing — and the deaths from the disease increased by a factor of six for a total of 210 on Friday. 

The Trump administration granted the state’s request to pay for the Illinois National Guard to assist the state in responding to the crisis mainly through logistic support and medical staffing. It’s the first time the Illinois National Guard has been mobilized to combat a medical issue, turning typical military protocol “on its head”, the Chicago Tribune reports

There’s been some hiccups in federal relief for Illinois, as the White House sent 300,000 surgical masks to the state instead of the N95 masks that were promised, and a network of drive-through testing sites by big-box retailers have yet to fully materialize, Washington Post reports

Several new testing sites have opened, Chicago Sun-Times reports but limited capacity remains an enormous problem. On Thursday, the state began rapid testing thanks to machines newly developed by the North Chicago-based medical device firm Abbott, as mayors and governors across the country compete to obtain Abbott’s new technology, Washington Post reports

Health care services ramp up and ramp down 

Four temporary field hospitals have been set up across the state, NPR Illinois reports, including one at McCormick Place, as hospitals, some of which are already showing signs of becoming overwhelmed, shift resources to meet the demands of the crisis, and encourage remote visits for patients needing routine care. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also rehabilitating three hospital sites to treat non-acute COVID-19 patients, the Daily Herald reports. More than a thousand people have responded to officials’ continued calls for former health care workers and volunteers to join the fight, and medical students nearing graduation may be tapped to end their programs early to join the effort, while others were pulled away from clinical rotations to avoid unnecessary exposure. 

The Trump administration decided against reopening Obamacare markets in a special enrollment period to aid those newly uninsured due to broad layoffs. This comes  as the Supreme Court is set to consider a new lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, threatening Illinois’ system of caring for poor patients, Crain’s Chicago Business reports, especially the uninsured in face of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the sudden drop in patient volume at community health centers, considered the first line of contact for low-income, uninsured, immigrant and otherwise underserved patients, means some may not survive the crisis and face shutdowns, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Flattening the curve in Illinois 

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Tracking coronavirus cases in Illinois, daily

 

The U.S. Surgeon General identified Chicago as a national hot spot for COVID-19 infections, but the northern suburbs are also seeing high numbers, while small towns and downstate communities prepare to see more cases, Chicago Tribune reports. Eleven nursing homes in Lake County have been found to have multiple cases of the coronavirus, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Officials are expecting Illinois to see its peak in cases in the coming weeks and the state may still not have enough hospital capacity for the number of people who will be ill unless stay at home measures are a success, Chicago Tribune and Block Club Chicago report.  

“We’ve nearly exhausted every avenue available. Now, the rest is up to you,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday, emphasizing that social distancing remains critical as the statewide stay-at-home order and school closures have been extended to April 30. 

Two researchers at the University of Chicago published a report finding that saving lives through social distancing and saving the economy are actually complementary goals that would save the country trillions in the next six months according to their forecast, Crain’s Chicago Business and the Washington Post report. 

Social distancing crackdowns 

Local officials are using more than memes, viral videos and virtual town halls to keep Chicagoans at home. Officers have closed off parks and broken up funeral services, and Cook County is threatening to close forest preserves. A man in southeastern Illinois is facing criminal charges for walking into a busy gas station after being ordered to self-isolate because of coronavirus symptoms in what may be the first case of its kind in the state, ProPublica Illinois reports

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants Chicagoans to call 311 if they see non-essential businesses open, and the city has received at least 500 such complaints so far, Chicago Tribune reports.  

Protecting first responders

The Illinois Nurses Association is demanding greater protections as a dozen nurses have tested positive for coronavirus at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, echoing similar calls made by Service Employees International Union, Block Club Chicago reports. 

City employees, including a parking enforcement aide, a City Colleges of Chicago campus clerical worker, and a Chicago police officer have died from complications related to COVID-19 this week. Healthcare professionals in Chicago fear infecting their families at home, Chicago Tribune reports, and the city is renting hotel rooms to first responders so that they can self-isolate during the pandemic. 

At least 74 Chicago police officers have tested positive for coronavirus and more than 800 CPD employees, or 6% of the entire department, called out sick last Monday, Chicago Tribune reports

Essential workers strike back 

As a variety of essential workers, including Amazon warehouse employees in Illinois and a North Side Whole Foods employee, test positive for COVID-19, some in Chicago walked out on “sick out” strikes this week to protest the high risks and lack of protections they face on the job, following national campaigns by Instacart and Amazon workers. The Gig Workers Collective, representing thousands of part-time grocery delivery workers, is demanding hazard pay and additional protective gear in the midst of the pandemic, NBC Chicago reports

Illinois grocery stores are being advised to prohibit shoppers from using reusable bags to protect their workers and other shoppers from contracting the coronavirus, Chicago Sun-Times reports, while a labor union representing Chicago-area grocery store workers is asking the city to waive single-use plastic bag taxes during the COVID-19 crisis, according to WBBM. Pritzker is working with the Illinois Merchants Association to make shopping safer for workers and customers, recommending self-checkout lanes, cashless purchases, and signs to encourage social distancing within stores, CBS Chicago reports

On the line for the most vulnerable 

Illinois’ child welfare agency is undertaking a rapid, extensive revamping of how it responds to abuse reports, and safeguarding frontline workers preparing for a potential surge in hotline calls about children isolated with abusive adults, Chicago Tribune reports

Suicide prevention groups are also reporting an uptick in calls, ABC 7 Chicago reports

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Some Chicagoans may be facing coronavirus threat without water at home

Domestic violence shelters are also preparing for a surge in calls, and groups in Cook County are shifting victims from a dozen shelters to hotel rooms to prevent an outbreak, a privately funded effort that the Illinois Department of Human Services is planning to support very soon, WBEZ reports.

Cook County prosecutors have stopped accepting criminal complaints in-person from people seeking arrests of their alleged abusers except in the most violent cases after a courthouse employee tested positive for the coronavirus. The state’s attorney’s office is setting up a way to handle complaints by phone and people are being told they can petition in civil court for emergency orders of protection, Chicago Tribune reports

Chicago Sun-Times details the plight of local undocumented workers, who were already excluded from safety net protections and are not eligble for most new forms of direct government aid, while some community groups are gearing their support efforts specifically for immigrants

An unknown number of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents may be unable to wash their hands at home because their water had been shut off by the city due to unpaid bills and not yet reconnected, WBEZ and The Chicago Reporter reported earlier this week. People who do not have water supply in their homes should call 311 for help, city officials said. 

Lead in the water has frustrated residents of University Park, in the south suburbs. And in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, resident complaints about a water shutoff for maintenance there were moved to 11 p.m. Sunday, Block Club Chicago reported

The rent is due

Rent was due April 1, which had been a looming concern for Chicagoans who are now jobless or lacking work due to the pandemic, as well as non-essential businesses and restaurants now closed until May. While some cities and states have moved to temporarily freeze rent, suspend mortgage payments, and ban rent increases, no such overarching measures were made in Chicago or Illinois, Chicago Tribune reports

Rent strikes were organized in multiple neighborhoods including Andersonville, Beverely, and Humboldt Park, Chicago Tribune reports. Major landlord Mac Properties said it can work out payment agreements with tenants affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19 but would not commit to suspending rent entirely, in response to a rent strike against the company, Hyde Park Herald and Block Club Chicago report. A North Side barista discovered she could possibly be denied housing by Kass Management because of her new unemployment status, Block Club Chicago details

Mayor Lori Lightfoot doesn’t have the authority enact a rent freeze due to the state’s ban on rent regulations, but her administration urged property owners to “give tenants some grace” and turn to new federal and local measures to help with housing costs, including a new $2 million grant program to give 2,000 Chicagoans $1,000 toward rent or mortgage payments. Undocumented residents were encouraged to apply, as they are not eligible to recieve federal relief. Curbed Chicago detailed options for homeowners struggling to make mortgage payments. Meanwhile, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is holding firm on the Aug. 1 property tax deadline, despite grave concerns voiced by county Treasurer Maria Pappas, The Daily Line reports

Pritzker said he doesn’t have the power to issue a statewide freeze due to the statewide moratorium on rent control but evictions have been halted in the state level and in Cook County until at least May. 

Public Housing residents in Chicago did get a reprieve from paying rent through the end of the month, Chicago Sun-Times reports, although the Chicago Housing Authority was slow to protect residents and employees from an outbreak, according to reporting by ProPublica Illinois

COMMENTARY:

Illinois changes Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment policies in response to COVID-19

 

State unemployment record broken — again  

178,000 workers filed for unemployment in Illinois this week, breaking the record of 114,000 claims filed the previous week, WBEZ and ABC 7 Chicago report. But those numbers are likely incomplete as people continue to be unable to access the state website to make claims as the online system is flooded with an unprecedented volume of users. Pritzker acknowledged the limits of the system and said they are working hard to fix it, and that there is not enough money in the state’s unemployment reserves to meet the demands, CBS Chicago reports. Meanwhile, state unemployment benefits are not yet available to gig workers, The Daily Line reports

The U.S. Labor Department reported 6.6 million new unemployment claims filed across the country last week, meaning the country could be facing its highest jobless rate since World War II. 

More local relief measures 

Cook County implemented a one-month grace period on new work requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients without dependents under the age of 50, who were set to lose their benefits under new guidelines meant to take effect this year, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Illinois’ Medicaid reimbursement rate, which has hovered around 50% for decades, is expected to see a slight boost, The Daily Line reports

City and state leaders announced the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, a public and privately funded pool of at least $4.5 million to provide relief to the cultural sector. Individual artists who can demonstrate economic hardship because of the pandemic can apply for a one-time grant of $1,500, while relief for nonprofits experiencing economic hardship ranges from $6,000 to $30,000.

Hate and racial disparities 

The FBI is warning of a potential surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans as the coronavirus crisis unfolds. WBEZ and the Chicago Reader report on the prejudice Asian Americans in Chicago are currently experiencing. Nonetheless, Chicago’s Chinese community is mobilizing to donate needed medical supplies to Chicago health care providers through efforts largely organized through the social media platform WeChat, Chicago Tribune reports

And as Zoom video conferencing skyrockets in popularity, some calls are being “Zoombombed” by hate speech, including The TRiiBE, a Chicago news outlet for black millenials, as reported by Chicago Tribune, echoing a national trend, Buzzfeed reports

The Undefeated compares how black Chicagoans were treated during the 1918 Spanish flu to how race is impacting the response to the pandemic today. Democratic lawmakers are calling for racial data in virus testing in order to monitor and address disparities in the national response to the crisis, AP reports

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Stateville prison outbreak signals COVID-19 threat to inmates, surrounding hospital systems

 

Outbreaks behind bars

Reporter Josh McGhee details the response to and impact of an outbreak of coronavirus cases at Statesville prison that’s claimed one life so far as Illinois National Guard medics are brought in to help. Columnist Curtis Black critiques the governor’s response to protecting incarcerated populations from COVID-19 devastation, highlighting lawsuits filed this week to expedite releases. Supreme courts in other several states have directly ordered reducing arrests and releasing the incarcerated in the name of public health, but not Illinois, according to The Appeal

Injustice Watch details the large number of elderly prisoners in Illinois. A handful of mothers incarcerated with their babies have been released, Chicago Tribune reports

Cook County Jail is also facing a rapidly escalating outbreak of COVID-19 cases and Sheriff Tom Dart slammed the governor for deciding to stop accepting new prisoners into the Illinois Department of Corrections, WBEZ reports. As some detainees are released from Cook County and being put on electronic monitoring, advocates raise concerns that they will be forced to choose between their own health or their family’s well-being and the threat of being sent back to jail if they violate the restrictions placed on them, Injustice Watch reports

On the national level, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and legal advocates called on federal authorities to release thousands of immigrants being held in detention centers and county jails nationwide to cull the spread of the coronavirus, Chicago Sun-Times reports

A shift to e-learning with federal help on the way

COMMENTARY:

COVID-19 closures could hit historically black colleges particularly hard

The Illinois State Board of Education directed districts to implement remote learning plans for all schools this week, allowing flexibility in meeting the requirement for students lacking internet access, saying schools will not have to make up days lost due to stay-at-home closures now extended to May. Spring standardized testing, including the SAT, has also been suspended after the state received a federal waiver, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times report. ProPublica Illinois interviewed a rural school superintendent who is turning to a copy machine to meet student needs as families in his district lack computers or internet connections. 

CPS students will officially move to full e-learning days on April 13, as the district aims to get tens of thousands of electronic devices into the hands of homebound students. Internet access varies widely between communities in the city, and Census data shows that more than 100,000 Chicago households lack a computer or tablet, and almost 200,000 don’t have internet access, WBEZ details. Ald. Ray Lopez told the Chicago Sun-Times that CPS students are not expected to be back in classrooms in-person for the rest of the year.  

Illinois is expected to receive $569.5 million in emergency school funds from the federal government to spend on its coronavirus response, Chalkbeat Chicago reports, more than 40% of which will go to Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Sun-Times reports

CPS is consolidating free meal pickups starting April 13 but ensuring that 90% of students will be within one mile of a meal distribution site and roughly half of city schools will continue to offer them, Block Club Chicago and Chicago Sun-Times report. 

City and county adapt services, change policies

Inside Empty CTA L Brown Line Car

The Chicago Transit Authority is continuing to operate on a full weekday schedule despite a huge dip in ridership, raising questions, CBS Chicago and the Better Government Association detail. At least seven CTA workers have tested positive for coronavirus.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office is looking for a refrigerated warehouse with a capacity for up to 1,000 bodies in order to have a separate location to process cases related to COVID-19 and better protect workers, Chicago Tribune reports

Aldermen are pushing for scrap metal yards polluting Chicago neighborhoods to close as coronavirus continues to spread, Chicago Tribune and Block Club Chicago report. Others are pushing back against Lightfoot’s decision to suspend street sweeping, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Meanwhile, Chicago’s City Council is setting up technology for a virtual meeting on April 15. Other public meetings have been cancelled, postponed or moved online as the state suspended the Open Meetings Act, relaxing in-person attendance requirements so that agencies can hold meetings remotely, City Bureau reports

Pandemic spending, budgeting, and governance 

Lightfoot granted herself extraordinary powers to move money around without City Council approval by issuing an executive order declaring a state of emergency earlier this month and created a new section of the city’s 2020 budget to consolidate coronavirus related expenses, Chicago Tribune details. She insists that the city can weather the fiscal storm of COVID-19, downplaying the impact of the drop in city revenues, Chicago Sun-Times reports. S&P says Chicago is unlikely to run out of money to pay its bills but has little room for error and will jeopardize its credit quality and rating if it doesn’t stay on plan to meet growing pension-funding requirements, Crain’s Business Chicago details

Cook County commissioners approved a measure temporarily expanding Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s power to make some decisions independently without their direct approval. The county health system is taking a major hit by dropping elective surgeries, its biggest moneymaker, but will continue its mission of providing care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, Crain’s Chicago Business reports

COMMENTARY:

EPA suspends enforcement as a nation needs to breathe

Cook County’s chief COVID-19 response architect and longtime public health official, Dr. Terry Mason, was ousted from his position as Cook County Public Health Department chief operating officer Friday, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Pritzker has yet to come up with a plan for filling the holes the coronavirus crisis will blow in this year’s budget, which will need to be wholly rewritten, Chicago Tribune reports as the state lacks much of a rainy day fund. The state’s delayed income tax filing deadline may affect cash flow while it waits for billions in federal relief, the Bond Buyer reports

Unlike New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who deemed most residential and commercial construction non-essential, Pritzker considered construction projects essential business, Block Club Chicago reports, allowing large developments to press ahead, Curbed Chicago details. Uber, however, has temporarily stopped construction of its office space in the Old Post Office, delaying its move in date to next year, Crain’s Business Chicago reports

While some Chicago voters found out their primary mail-in ballots were rejected, CBS Chicago reports, state legislators are split over expanding mail balloting for the general election, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.  

Making the 2020 census count

April 1 marked census day, as community groups, civic organizations, immigrant rights advocates, and churches urged residents to fill out their 2020 forms, emphasizing why the census matters even more during a pandemic. But some Latino neighborhoods are falling behind in participation, Chicago Tribune 

Some businesses reel, some seek relief 

Small businesses and companies of fewer than 500 people can begin applying for more than $300 billion in loans through the government’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package today, although bankers and owners have no idea how it will play out. 

Meanwhile, Chicago received 4,500 loan applications on the first day for its Small Business Resiliency Fund, Crain’s Chicago Business reports

Some local restaurants are abandoning efforts to pivot to delivery, and six Chicago hospitality groups are suing their insurance company over COVID-19 denials, Chicago Eater reports, as is the Billy Goat. Other local businesses are getting creative in trying to serve customers during the pandemic. Austin Weekly News details how many black-owned restaurants fear they won’t survive the upheaval. 

And by gutting local advertising overnight, COVID-19 may deal an early death blow to local news businesses, New York Times and Nieman Lab report. In Illinois, 22nd Century Media, a collection of 14 North Shore and southwest suburban community papers, ceased operations this week, citing a collapse in March advertising, and Playboy magazine ceased publication amid fallout from the pandemic. 

Major companies are signaling a new wave of economic distress, as Macy’s, Kohl’s, Gap and media giant Gannett announced massive furloughs, Washington Post reports

Legal weed business still green 

One new local industry that has not yet seen a hit during the crisis is legalized marijuana, as dispensaries saw an increase in sales in March, according to the Chicago Tribune and Capitol News Illinois. Recreational pot businesses adapted to stay-at-home orders, offering deliveries and curbside pickups, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times report. 

The state delayed a pot business application deadline by a month, extending an entrepreneurship opportunity that is now all the more challenging for social equity applicants, Chicago Tribune reports. It’s a remarkable transformation for a drug that went from being considered illegal to “essential” in just three months, Chicago Sun-Times details

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