ROUNDUP: How the Chicago region is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic

Here’s your summary of the latest in how local residents and officials are dealing with the strictest social distancing orders yet as jobless claims soar and local healthcare systems brace for the worst.

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Chicago skyline

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The Chicago skyline seen from the south branch of the Chicago River.

This has been an intense week with a lot of fast moving details. To keep pace, we launched an Illinois coronavirus tracker that is updated daily with data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. We are asking for your help in addressing your most pressing news and information needs through this survey. And, below, is a curated summary of essential reading on local responses to the coronavirus pandemic in Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois.

Topics: Stay at home | Chicago services and policies | Healthcare systems | Schools | Labor and business | Criminal justice | Grocery stores | Homelessness | Government and finance | Community | Census | Immigration 

Stay at home. And wash your hands.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker capped off a stressful week for Illinoisans by issuing a “stay at home” order late Friday that would go into effect at 5 p.m. Saturday and be in effect until April 7, limiting activities to those deemed essential like shopping for groceries and walking pets. 

Earlier in the week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has ordered all Chicagoans with confirmed cases of coronavirus and people who have symptoms of the illness to stay at home except to also seek essential services, clinical care, food and medicine. Violators can be fined $100 to $500, per Block Club Chicago and Chicago Sun-Times 

Lightfoot also suspended “non-essential” government services that cannot be performed from home while public safety departments and other critical agencies like airports will remain fully staffed. All city employees will continue to receive their normal pay and benefits, including health care, according to CBS Chicago and Chicago Sun-Times.

WBEZ reports that Chicago police officers say they do not know how to enforce a city public health order as COVID-19 symptoms are indistinguishable from the common cold or flu. Meanwhile, the Chicago Police Department is telling officers to keep coming to work despite confirmed exposure to a case of coronavirus. Police in other parts of the country are changing how they respond to calls, CNN reports with some being advised against making low-level arrests. 

The Chicago Public Library system had planned to keep some of its libraries open, raising objections from staff ProPublica Illinois, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune reported. But on Saturday, all libraries were closed pursuant to the governor’s statewide shelter in place order. Library cardholders can still access online resources.

Chicago will also stop all debt collection, ticketing and impound practices at least through April 30. Utility bills for Chicago residents are now due April 30 and those behind on paying them won’t be sent to collections or default on their payment plans until May 1, Block Club Chicago reported. 

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Tracking coronavirus cases in Illinois, daily


Local healthcare systems brace for the worst

Supplies for coronavirus testing remain extremely limited in Illinois, Block Club Chicago reports. In the suburbs, NorthShore University HealthSystem, became the first medical network in the state to be able to rapidly test its own patients, according to WBEZ. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that big retailers, such as Deerfield-based Walgreens, are still working on making drive-thru testing available, as promised by President Donald Trump. 

Chicago area hospitals and medical centers are preparing for a potential deluge of infected patients and having a hard time keeping up with the demand for supplies like special masks, gowns, and goggles needed to treat COVID-19 patients, WBEZ reports

Illinois hospitals face a possible shortage of beds needed to care for the number of patients projected to get the virus according to analyses by Harvard’s Global Health Institute, ProPublica Illinois reports, a scenario that could occur in states across the country. The state is considering building a field hospital, reopening closed hospitals and leaning on specialty hospitals to lessen the load, Crain’s Chicago Business reports

Meanwhile, a Chicago Tribune analysis found that Illinois’ nursing home facilities have been among the worst in the nation in following rules to contain infections, according to federal inspection records. 

A new meaning for “Spring break” 

Lightfoot extended school closures for the city’s public schools to April 20, while statewide, all schools will remain closed until at least March 30 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Chicago Public Schools is also canceling district-mandated end-of-year testing, including the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) MAP test, and teacher evaluations, Chicago Sun Times reports

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Online learning and the digital divide


All Chicago public schools are offering free meal pickup from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday during coronavirus closures. Delivery is also available for families lacking transportation. Millions of U.S. children rely on receiving free or discounted meals at school. As of Thursday, CPS reported having handed out more than 500,000 meals, according to the Sun Times.

Chicago district leaders have acknowledged that schools are not prepared for a seamless shift to e-learning, but the district worked to prepare digital and hard-copy enrichment resources for students, Chalkbeat Chicago reports, an issue also facing most school systems in the state, according to WBEZ. Online learning is expected to pose a particularly significant challenge to low-income parents most likely to be impacted by the digital divide

And the University of Chicago reversed its plan to cut student financial aid for so-called “distance learners,” students who would be designated as “off-campus” after leaving on-campus housing, hours after Block Club Chicago reported on the new policy. 

Sudden widespread joblessness strikes the service sector 

64,000 Illinoisans submitted unemployment claims earlier this week, a tenfold increase according to the Chicago Tribune, due largely to the state-mandated shutdown of restaurants and bars. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that the move threatens nearly 70,000 low-income hospitality workers in Chicago alone. Block Club Chicago published a guide to obtaining relief for those out of work due to the coronavirus and South Side Weekly outlined who in Illinois is now eligible for unemployment. Nationwide, more than a million workers are expected to lose their jobs by the end of March, the Washington Post reports, resulting in a staggering rise in jobless claims, as confirmed by numbers released by the Labor Department.  

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New federal sick leave law – who’s eligible, who’s not and how many weeks do you get


Meanwhile, restaurants struggled to enact the sudden closings, and are rallying for relief. Local and national labor unions are also urging worker aid from private employers and the government, according to Crain’s Chicago Business and Chicago Sun-Times. And groups representing gig workers such as ride-hail and cab drivers and adjunct teachers are asking officials to allow them to get unemployment benefits, Chicago Sun Times reports

Lightfoot launched a $100 million city fund to provide low-interest loans to help Chicago businesses severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic through a public-private partnership, according to Chicago Sun-Times and Block Club Chicago

Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a two-month delay for tens of thousands of businesses to pass along sales tax proceeds as relief and obtained federal disaster assistance loans for small businesses and nonprofits hit by the coronavirus, according to NBC Chicago. 

Hundreds of Chicago restaurants and bars are turning to Go Fund Me for support, as documented in the Chicago Hospitality Employee Relief Guide, Block Club Chicago reports.

Trump signed legislation to provide paid leave and other support to millions of workers sidelined by school closures, quarantines and caregiving. 

The slow wheels of justice grind to a near halt

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Coronavirus: Will courts continue to operate, preserving the rule of law?


The Circuit Court of Cook County is postponing most cases for at least 30 days. Judges will continue to hold bail hearings, arraignments and other hearings that initiate new criminal cases, including hearings related to domestic violence and child abuse. Jury trials in criminal and civil matters as well as non-emergency matters including evictions, foreclosures, traffic, and marriage ceremonies have been pushed back, WBEZ reports. Questions of whether Cook County and other municipalities will turn to videoconferencing hearings remain to be seen. 

Individuals who have been summoned to jury duty from March 17 through April 15 should not report for jury duty and will receive a new date for service.

Cook County Jail officials are beginning to release detainees deemed highly vulnerable to COVID-19, Chicago Tribune reports, as advocates call for releasing those held because they can’t afford bail and to limit new admissions, as detailed by Chicago Reporter columnist Curtis Black. New screening procedures have been implemented at the jail, Chicago Sun-Times reports, and jail visits have been suspended. 

Advocates are also calling on Gov J.B. Pritzker to quickly review the cases of elderly and infirm prisoners, and juvenile detainees, to facilitate early releases like other systems across the country. Concerns have also been raised about the availability of soap and cleaning supplies in Illinois prisons to prevent a coronavirus outbreak behind bars, WBEZ reports

Grocery stores, legal weed, and other businesses see spikes

At least four Chicago-area grocery chains — Jewel-Osco, Mariano’s, Whole Foods and Target — are setting aside special hours for seniors so they can shop before shelves are emptied, Block Club Chicago reports, and some are rapidly hiring to keep up with demand as existing workers get worn out

Some companies are hiring additional IT workers to provide support for new remote workers and are delivery companies, Crain’s Chicago Business reports

Legal marijuana sales have also spiked at some dispensaries in Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times reports.The state has permitted cannabis retailers to sell medical weed outside until the end of the month according to Block Club Chicago and Chicago Sun Times.

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Coronavirus could hit homeless hard, and that could hit everyone hard

 

Protecting the homeless 

In the Chicago area, efforts to modify homeless shelter operations to prevent coronavirus infection are complicated by staffing models dependent on volunteers, lack of space, supplies and guidance, and costs, the Chicago Tribune reports, raising concerns about a population particularly vulnerable to infection. 

Governance and finance

Lightfoot says city finances are ‘well situated’ to weather the coronavirus storm as she announced relief measures, Crain’s Chicago Business reports. Meanwhile, experts say Illinois is especially vulnerable to financial fallout as tax dollars disappear due to the pandemic as the state has no rainy day fund and less flexibility than other states in funneling money to respond to the crisis, Politico and Chicago Tribune report.

Officials criticized Pritzker’s decision to not postpone the Illinois primary election this week, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Using nearly 50 housing facilities for low-income seniors as polling locations also garnered criticism, The Intercept reports.

After the City of Chicago officials said it would automatically reject all Freedom of Information Act requests due to reductions in city services, the Illinois attorney general’s office stated that public bodies should continue to comply with requests, and the Lightfoot administration reversed course, WBEZ and Chicago Tribune report.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul is pursuing those who seek to profit from the need for materials to fight the coronavirus outbreak, armed with a new executive order issued by the governor, One Illinois reports

Community responses

Nearly 200 street outreach workers, or “interrupters,” are continuing to patrol Chicago’s streets in an effort to prevent shootings and inform residents about the outbreak, The Trace reports

Brave Space Alliance is assembling resources to help queer and trans residents on the South Side, taking its programming online and creating a crisis pantry to get food to those in need, Block Club Chicago reports

A large group of residents in Rogers Park, a North Side neighborhood, is making sure their neighbors won’t have to endure the pandemic — and it’s required social isolation — alone by forming a community response team, Block Club Chicago reports.

A network to help Chicagoans struggling during the coronavirus outbreak has raised over $21,000 for those out of work or in need of help through a newly launched mutual aid network, Block Club Chicago reports

Chicagoans celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year marking the spring equinox, shared festivities online instead of in traditional, large family gatherings, Chicago Tribune reports.

WBEZ details how multi-generation families are coping with social distancing measures to guard against the pandemic.  

Postponing the Census

The U.S. Census Bureau is temporarily suspending all field operations for the 2020 census for two weeks until April 1, NPR reports, and adjusting how it counts people living in group quarters like college dorms, nursing homes, and prisons, according to WBEZ

Fear and confusion around immigration enforcement

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will delay arresting immigrants who are not “public safety threats” and use alternatives to detention amid the outbreak, Washington Post and Buzzfeed report. ICE agents reportedly made arrests on the first day of California’s coronavirus lockdown, LA Times reports. Many fear that immigrant detainees will face an outbreak behind bars, as an ICE employee tested positive for COVID-19 in New Jersey and the agency had no plans to release detainees, The Daily Beast reported. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is closing immigration courts and postponing all hearings of cases of immigrants who are not in detention, CNN reports.

What do you want to know about the impact and spread of coronavirus in Chicago and Illinois? Please fill out our brief survey or comment below to inform our reporting.