As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Illinois climbed into the thousands this week, state and city officials, communities and businesses continue to rally to fight the disease on every conceivable front. But grave questions and concerns remain about protecting the most vulnerable residents — as well as the essential workers who are serving them and keeping society functioning, often at low wages.
Topics: Local preparedness | Unemployment | Medicaid and food stamps | Housing | Transit | Protecting essential workers | Community and business | Federal relief | State funding | Shutting down the lakefront | Policing | Courts, jail, and prison | Schools | Census | Government | Services | Last week | Survey
The latest in the local fight against coronavirus
Illinois officials are moving fast to purchase needed medical supplies to fight back against shortages, calling on retired health care providers to return to work on the frontlines, and enlisting the help of the private sector to ramp up production on gloves and masks.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker says Illinois would have run out of hospital beds in a week had it not been for his stay-at-home order, and concerns linger about whether there’s enough to weather the length of the pandemic. Hospitals are preparing for a surge in patients.
“As testing increases, we do expect to see the number of cases to increase,” state Public Information Officer Kim Biggs told The Chicago Reporter as the total number of confirmed cases in Illinois surpassed 2,500.
Some newly available testing sites and pilots are being reserved for first responders and healthcare workers only. A new testing site by the Illinois National Guard hit its daily quote after less than four hours. The northwest suburban pharmaceutical company Abbott is working quickly to produce more tests after the FDA cut red tape to approve new products, Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Meanwhile, nearly $1 million in Illinois cannabis tax revenues earmarked for the state’s rainy day fund will be used to help rural and small-town pharmacies being “squeezed” by low reimbursements, the comptroller’s office announced, Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Illinois is one of eight states to have initiated the most comprehensive policies in response to the pandemic, according to Politico. United Center is being transformed into a coronavirus logistics hub and employees will continue to be paid for the remainder of the scheduled season, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Unemployment soars, jamming state systems
More than 100,000 people filed unemployment claims in Illinois during the first week of the pandemic, the state’s worst week ever for jobless claims, according to WBEZ. This doesn’t include the thousands of independent contractors out of work, as reported by Block Club Chicago, or undocumented workers, as detailed by WBEZ.
The flood of claims overwhelmed the state’s online filing portal and phone lines and the state is now trying to implement an alphabetized schedule and transferring to a new software system to prevent more system crashes.
Meanwhile, some companies are now hiring thousands of additional workers to meet the demands of the new normal, ABC reports. Low-income workers are most at risk of contracting the virus on the job, according to a Politico analysis.
Extending Medicaid, food stamps and jobless policies
The federal government approved Illinois’ application to expand Medicaid as the coronavirus crisis staves off the Trump administration’s larger plans to roll back the program. Chicago Reporter columnist Curtis Black details how Pritzker has won praise for quickly implementing changes to food stamp and unemployment eligibility while advocates continue to press for emergency measures to provide housing relief and other steps to help low-income communities survive the crisis and its aftermath. A judge has halted a federal rule change to subject food stamp recipients to work requirements thanks to a challenge by 19 states including Illinois. But the decision does not help Cook County, where federal work requirements for able-bodied, childless food stamp recipients went into effect in January, affecting some 50,000 people, Chicago Tribune reports.
Housing the homeless and the quarantined
The Chicago Housing Initiative is pushing for vacant public housing units to be used to shelter homeless people during the pandemic, one of a host of measures they’re advocating to protect the city’s most vulnerable from contracting COVID-19, Chicago Tribune reports.
The city is also renting thousands of hotel rooms to the homeless and people who may have the virus in order to reserve hospital space — a move that has worried hotel workers who only last year went on strike for better conditions and fear they will now be more vulnerable to the virus, CBS Chicago reports.
Transit breaks and worker risks
The city rolled out a variety of financial breaks on Divvy, Chicago Transit Authority and South Shore passes and cab rides, with similar measures being offered to suburban commuters alongside pared down schedules. Decreased ridership is raising concerns about cash-strapped Metra’s future, while the city plans to roll out subsidies for the taxi industry and wheelchair-accessible taxis in particular.
A CTA bus driver and train conductor have tested positive for coronavirus leading union workers to call for all CTA workers to be tested, Block Club Chicago reports. Earlier this week, hundreds of flights were cancelled at Midway International Airport after two control tower employees tested positive for coronavirus, CBS Chicago reports.
Essential worker protections and childcare
Union leaders want to ensure work sites and equipment are properly cleaned to protect essential workers against infection, Chicago Sun-Times reports, as questions continue about which occupations should be considered “essential” and how to maintain employees’ safety and livelihoods while keeping society functioning. For example, at least one worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in Joliet has tested positive for the coronavirus but the center has no plans to close, CBS Chicago reports. Local factory workers told ProPublica Illinois that they are afraid of going to work and getting sick but can’t afford to stay home and isolate themselves.
To help keep first responders on the job, Lightfoot has launched a program offering to match the costs of childcare services and is considering a plan to offer free childcare, and the state is working on issuing emergency licenses to day care centers, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago communities and businesses respond
Asians in Chicago brace for discrimination and harassment, especially as Trump defends his use of the phrase “Chinese virus,” Chicago Tribune reports, and Chinatown grapples with the economic fallout of the crisis, WTTW reports
Block Club Chicago has reported on a variety of community responses to the crisis all over the city. Mothers Against Senseless Killings is asking community members to loan or donate electronic devices for students in Englewood who don’t have the technology necessary to keep up with online learning. West Side high schoolers launched a podcast to stay connected and informed during ongoing school closures. Far North Siders raised $18,000 for a coronavirus community response fund and Chicagoans with 3D printers are creating face shields for health care workers.
“Shop in Place Chicago” is a new effort to connect Chicago’s neighborhood businesses with Chicagoans who want to “buy local” online during the pandemic, launched by the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Law School, WBEZ reports.
Federal relief on the way
President Donald Trump approved Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s requested disaster declaration for Illinois this week, despite their Twitter feud, The move opens up federal resources to respond to the coronavirus crisis, one of several states to be granted the status. The White House also vowed to send Illinois ventilators and masks after Pritzker and Trump talked Monday, Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Illinois will also receive $4.9 billion in direct assistance as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill unanimously passed by the Congress this week, Chicago Tribune reports. The unprecedented stimulus measure includes direct payments for taxpayers, expanded unemployment benefits, emergency loans for small businesses keeping their workers, relief for hospitals and other huge business bailouts. Crain’s Chicago Business highlights some of the Illinois businesses that stand to benefit.
Pritzker funnels millions to businesses and nonprofits
The governor also launched a fundraising effort to help the state’s nonprofits providing support during the crisis to be headed by his sister, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and operated separately from the state by United Way of Illinois and Alliance of Illinois Community Foundations. It’s starting with $23 million in initial donations, including $2 million donated by Pritzker himself and another $2 million from his foundation, Chicago Tribune reports.
Lightfoot shuts down lakefront
Mayor Lori Lightfoot decided to shut down all parks and beaches along the lakefront, as well as Millennium Park, the Riverwalk and the 606 Trail due to crowds of 100 or more congregating there, which she warned would lead to more infections as Chicago saw its biggest daily spike in new COVID-19 cases yet. Contact sports such as basketball, soccer and football are also banned. She has directed police to ramp up patrols in the areas, saying violators are subject to citation, fines of up to $500 and even arrest. She also warned that Chicagoans should not proceed to congregate in other parks not affected by the shutdown.
Police keep up the beat
Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck said that officers are now strictly enforcing the statewide stay at home order, and that violators will be given one warning before being cited.
At least six Chicago police officers have tested positive for COVID-19, Block Club Chicago reports, and protective measures have been instituted to prevent officers from contracting the coronavirus says Chicago Sun-Times. These fall short of what Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham has called for, as well as demands to close police stations to the public by the lead opponent running for Graham’s position, Officer John Catanzara, and Ald. Matt O’Shea. Police departments around the state have also made adjustments, Chicago Tribune reports.
Meanwhile, the search for a permanent police chief has been put on hold, meaning a new superintendent will not likely be in position to craft a plan to contend with summer gun violence as Lightfoot had wanted, Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Preventing an outbreak behind bars
Chief Criminal Court Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. ordered a review of thousands of criminal cases in response to an emergency motion filed by Public Defender Amy Campanelli, stopping short of releasing inmates en masse, Chicago Sun Times reports. With dozens of Cook County Jail detainees and staffers, as well as court and clerk’s office employees testing positive for coronavirus, officials are looking to contain an outbreak behind bars. Hearings have been expedited and at least 300 people have been released from the county jail this week but at least 180 more were booked, Injustice Watch reports. Officials have also ramped up efforts to release detained juveniles, Chicago Tribune reports.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx won’t be prosecuting low-level nonviolent drug offenses during the COVID-19 crisis. The state crime lab is reducing operations to work only on cases involving violent crime, leading prosecutors to dismiss all drug cases that have not yet been indicted or had a preliminary hearing, Chicago Tribune reports.
Lightfoot and a coalition of suburban mayors penned a letter asking if detainees will be tested for COVID-19 before release and raising concerns about some of those released being at risk of homelessness, Chicago Sun Times reports.
Two Illinois prisons are under lockdown after confirmed cases of coronavirus among officers and inmates emerge, and officials are considering releasing some people, Chicago Sun-Times reports. The Illinois Department of Corrections is refusing to take in new prisoners as a total of 12 corrections staff and prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus, WBEZ reports.
Preparing for longterm school closures
Week one of remote learning has been challenging and uncertain for families statewide, especially for those affected by the digital divide, as detailed by the Chicago Tribune. It’s been a particularly challenging time for special needs students, WBEZ reports. Some educational companies are offering free e-learning tools to teachers and parents to help, ABC 7 Chicago reports.
Officials are reconsidering safety restrictions on video chatting between teachers and students, according to Chalkbeat Chicago, and how long these days will count toward the state’s minimum instructional requirements before having to be made up, Chicago Tribune reports.
The state’s child abuse hotline has seen a major drop since the COVID-19 crisis reached Illnois, which child welfare officials fear is due to children being out of sight of teachers, social workers and counselors who are most likely to spot and report signs of abuse, ProPublica Illinois reports.
Making the census count
Chicago Census outreach groups are scrambling to change plans to ensure an accurate count for 2020, Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune report, as an undercount could mean a loss of billions of dollars in funding for the city. Large college towns are especially likely to be undercounted due to campus closures. Lightfoot is urging the Trump administration to postpone the 2020 Census altogether, Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Pritzker moved the deadline for filing state income tax returns by three months to July 15, matching the federal deadline extension. Cook County is also waiving a number of fines and fees and deferring the collection of some taxes in order to relieve businesses reeling from the coronavirus crisis, Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Illinois consumers have filed hundreds of coronavirus price gouging complaints, mostly involving toilet paper and hand sanitizer as Attorney General Kwame Raoul says businesses who inflate prices of needed basics during the pandemic could be fined up to $50,000 and ordered to shut down.
Raoul joined 32 other state attorneys urging Internet mega-sellers like Amazon, Facebook, eBay and Craistlist to crack down on the profiteering, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Services in demand facing shutdowns
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