ROUNDUP: Little room to breathe as Chicago and Illinois fight to bend the COVID-19 curve

The costs of containing the pandemic continue to escalate especially among vulnerable populations and communities of color across the city and state.

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Photo by Raed Mansour

A discarded medical mask at a Chicago Transit Authority station in Chicago.

As Chicago and Illinois pass one month of staying at home, the costs of containing the pandemic are piling up and it remains unclear when the worst will be behind us. More than 1,000 people have died due to the coronavirus in Illinois. Cases are continuing to escalate especially among vulnerable, restrained populations including immigrant detainees, inmates, and the homeless and the devastating impact of the crisis is continuing to play out along racial lines. 

Topics: Racial disparities | Surveilling stay-at-home | Policing and privacy concerns | Public employee deaths | Big budget holes | Pandemic spending | Tracking the spread | An unknown finish line |Implosion in Little Village | Immigrant detainees | Cook County Jail outbreak | Infections at homeless shelters | Election workers infected | Schools back in session | McDonalds workers strike back | Gun sales spike | FOIA | Stimulus in danger of being snatched | Gig workers join unemployment line | Small businesses see limited relief

The race test 


Latinos unaccounted for: As we noted last week, the number of Latinos affected by the coronavirus is likely underreported due to gaps in data collection. But Latinos make up 60% of the population in the 10 ZIP codes in Illinois with the fastest growing number of new coronavirus cases, according to one recent analysis. A new effort called the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative was launched by public health experts and elected officials to improve outreach about the disease to the state’s large Latino communities, Chicago Sun-Times reports

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Black people across Illinois are dying from COVID-19 at 3.4 times the rate of the white population

 

Officials respond to racial disparities: Gov. J.B. Pritzker is promising to ramp up COVID-19 testing in black communities in response to a wave of reports that African-Americans are disproportionately dying from the disease in Illinois and beyond. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said that the two new interim health chiefs she installed to replace Dr. Terry Mason, who was abruptly fired two weeks ago, “understand the unique set of challenges” posed with health care inequities amplified along racial lines during the pandemic. Illinois’ Democratic congressional delegation also sent a letter to the Trump administration calling for the federal government to collect nationwide data on how the virus is attacking black communities. 

Black people are bearing the brunt of the impact because of a host of long standing inequalities that cause them to be more likely to have underlying conditions, lack access to health care, and hold low-wage jobs that put them on the frontlines of the pandemic. They also often face economic marginalization that makes it difficult to fully practice social distancing or afford to take all the recommended precautions against the disease. But some feel they’re also being unfairly blamed for spreading the disease. Black healthcare professionals and commentators called foul when Surgeon General Jerome Adams said, “African-Americans and Latinos should avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco,” in response to a question about the racial disparity in the spread of the disease, adding “We need you to step up.” In Chicago, some South Side aldermen are urging their constituents to take stay-at-home orders seriously. 

The costs of bending the curve 


Surveilling stay-at-home: Chicagoans are staying at home to a significant degree, according to anonymized cell phone location data the city is using to determine if residents are abiding by the rules. Their analysis may foreshadow the contact tracing local officials and public health experts say will help safely reopen society as a range of tracking systems are being used around the world to make quarantine decisions. The approach could normalize a level of surveillance that raises complex privacy concerns

COMMENTARY:

Coronavirus lockdowns are pushing mass transit systems to the brink – and low-income riders will pay the price

 

Police, privacy and exposure concerns: The police department is also trying to enforce quarantine by setting up police checkpoints in each of city’s 22 patrol districts to remind people of the stay-at-home order and ‘show a strong police presence’ in areas hit by violence, raising concerns from police union leadership and the American Civil Liberties Union about creating unnecessary exposure for both officers and the public, Chicago Tribune reports

Law enforcement agencies in McHenry County took concerns over officer safety a step further by successfully suing for health officials to disclose the names and addresses of coronavirus patients to police responding to emergency calls. 

More public employees hit: Chicago police mourned the death of a second officer due to COVID-19 as about 200 in the department have confirmed cases. A second Chicago firefighter died from the disease as 94 members of the fire department have tested positive and a second and third Chicago Transit Authority worker also passed away from the virus. 

Big budget holes in search of federal relief: Pritzker unveiled projections from his budget’s office showing that the state expects to see a two-year budget hole of more than $10 billion total, saying that short-term borrowing can help get through the pandemic and his proposed graduated income tax would also lessen the load. Chicago will also see a drop in revenue from things like red-light violations due to the shutdown in business and activity threatening its bottom line as Mayor Lori Lightfoot extends policies to stop ticketing, booting, or impounding cars that don’t pose public safety threats and stops debt collection efforts. 

The ways cities, counties, and states make money are drying up across the country, and there’s talk of a second CARES Act on Capitol Hill that would go toward closing budget gaps, not just costs related to the virus. 

Pandemic spending: Illinois has spent $174 million so far on medicine and protective equipment to fight COVID-19 according to Comptroller Susana Mendoza who debuted an online portal identifying each expenditure since the March 9 state disaster declaration, revealing that the state spent $1.7 million on two flights to bring masks, gloves back from China and is paying big for in-demand ventilators. Crain’s Business Chicago reports that new field hospital units are being set up to improve patient management and flow at hospitals busy caring for coronavirus patients but taking a financial hit of $1.4 billion a month because of cancelled money-making elective surgeries, according to the Chicago Tribune.

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How is COVID-19 affecting your ZIP code in Illinois?

 

Tracking the spread: Cook County launched new websites to visualize and address disparities in communities most affected by COVID-19. South Side Weekly is tracking detailed information on COVID-19 deaths by community area in Chicago, and ProPublica Illinois is tracking the availability of ventilators and ICU beds at hospitals in the state. 

AARP Illinois is asking the state to post case and death counts online for specific nursing homes as nearly 300 illinois nursing home patients and staff have died from COVID-19, but exactly where remains unknown, Chicago Tribune reports

An unknown finish line: As officials proclaim that Chicago and Illinois are successfully ‘bending the curve’ of the diseases’s spread, it remains unclear when the state will peak in its number of cases and officials will decide the worst is behind us and it’s safe to start lifting stay-at-home orders. Pritzker is working with governors of six nearby states on assessing when and how to reopen their economies. Chicago Tribune is tracking Illinois’ response in comparison to other states. For historical perspective, Block Club Chicago details how restrictions were gradually phased out in Chicago after the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

Vulnerable populations in a ‘petri dish’ 


Struggling to breathe: Some Little Village residents struggled to breathe after their neighborhood became enveloped in a cloud of dust over the weekend when a smokestack imploded during a city-backed demolition of an old coal plant. Neighborhood environmental leaders had asked the city to stop the planned demolition given the unfolding respiratory pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot was quick to blame the developer, shut down the work site, halted all non-emergency demolitions for a week and launched investigations into the matter. But WBEZ reports that she dismissed the idea of rescinding a $19.7 million dollar tax break the city previously awarded the developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners, who apologized, conducted door-to-door interviews with nearby residents and is now facing a class-action lawsuit. Local aldermen blamed the mayor’s decision to consolidate permitting power in the mayor’s office and said they were powerless to stop it. 

The debacle was widely decried as an example of environmental racism toward a Latino neighborhood that has long suffered the effects of industrial pollution, South Side Weekly reports

Detained immigrants getting infected: A coronavirus outbreak at a Heartland Alliance immigrant detention facility on Chicago’s South Side may be the largest outbreak of any shelter for immigrant youth in the country with nearly 40 children and two staff testing positive, ProPublica Illinois reports. An immigrant rights group is suing the federal government to release immigrant detainees as some of those in Illinois test positive for the virus, Chicago Tribune details, as similar efforts are made around the country. The pandemic is also straining immigration court and detention systems in the Midwest, Borderless Magazine reports

RELATED:

Federal judge denies mass release at Cook County Jail, named ‘top U.S. hot spot’ for COVID-19

 

Containing the outbreak at Cook County Jail: Infections continue to climb and claimed a third life at Cook County Jail as advocates continue to press for better protections and more releases of detainees. Nurses warn that the outbreak at the jail, considered a national hotspot for the disease, threatens not only detainees and staffers but the entire county, WBEZ reports. Preckwinkle defended Sheriff Tom Dart’s efforts to contain the spread there. 

South Side Weekly detailed the steep challenges those on electronic monitoring face in surviving the pandemic. Several Cook County court proceedings started livestreaming on YouTube this week in order to limit person-to-person contact as 17 employees of the chief judge’s office have tested positive for COVID-19, NBC Chicago reports

Housing the homeless: Twelve people at a Chicago-funded homeless shelter have tested positive for the coronavirus as the city expands services and plans to open a 100-bed isolation facility for homeless residents, Chicago Tribune reports. Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) joined other black community leaders calling on the Chicago Housing Authority to open up 2,000 vacant units to the homeless, dismissing the mayor’s plan to open up hotels and YMCA’s as “putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” Chicago Sun-Times reports. Cook County also rolled out an alternative housing plan, contracting with four hotels to provide temporary shelter for vulnerable populations. Chicago Reader published a pair of stories detailing the tough choices Chicagoans without shelter face during the pandemic. 

Pandemic at the polls: A South Side poll worker has died from COVID-19 after working the March 17 primary election, and several others contracted the disease, leading the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners to notify voters who had cast their ballots at four city locations about their likely exposure. Pritzker and other top state Democrats support expanding mail-in voting ahead of the general election in November. Turnout was high in Wisconsin’s election controversially held last week with about 71% of ballots cast absentee. 

Protecting the essential 


Schools back in session: Almost a third of Chicago Public Schools students didn’t have a computer or tablet this week as the district’s 640 schools began state-mandated extensive remote learning plans, Chicago Sun-Times reports as Lightfoot suggests students won’t be coming back to the classroom this school year. Schools are getting creative to nudge students to sign on to loaned CPS devices every day, Chalkbeat Chicago reports. Chicago Sun-Times profiles how homeless fifth-grader Mariah Bingham is coping with her school being closed. Hundreds of retired educators are offering free online tutoring for struggling students, Chicago Tribune reports

Illinois’ public universities are asking for more federal aid, having lost hundreds of millions due to the pandemic already. Meanwhile, student organizers at the University of Chicago claim victory as the administration agrees to a tuition freeze — although a tuition strike is still on the table, Block Club Chicago reports.

COMMENTARY:

Essential workers contract COVID-19 statewide, giving demands a deadly urgency

McDonald’s workers strike back: Workers at a downtown Chicago McDonald’s filed a federal complaint saying the restaurant is not doing enough to protect employees and did not alert them about a night-shift worker contracting COVID-19. Franchisees want more financial assistance from McDonald’s, while the Chicago-based fast-food giant — which donated 1 million masks for local health care workers through Illinois’ COVID-19 relief fund — is asking operators to provide more support for restaurant workers.

Workers at the Chicago area’s Hostess and Bimbo bakeries also blasted their employers over unsafe working conditions, Austin Weekly News reports. 

Guns sales spike: Illinois received a record number of background check requests for potential firearms transactions in the last two weeks of March, as gun shops are considered essential businesses and allowed to remain open, echoing a national spike in gun sales. The pandemic has not slowed gun violence in Chicago, as CPD data shows that shootings are up 10% compared to this time last year while frontline anti-violence workers are restricted by the state-at-home order, WBEZ reports

FOIA during COVID-19: Nearly 200 mayors have asked Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to issue an advisory opinion giving public bodies additional time to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests amid the pandemic. The office had previously told municipalities that it had no authority to change existing state law.

Slow coming relief 

COMMENTARY:

Stimulus checks could be snapped up by debt collectors unless state does more to intervene

 

 

Stimulus stymied and endangered: Stimulus payments began arriving for Americans this week but technical glitches and overwhelmed banking platforms delayed them for many, in some cases causing the wrong amount to be deposited or get paid to the wrong account entirely. Officials warn recipients to shield their funds from being snatched by scams, predatory lenders and collectors. Chicago Reporter columnist Curtis Black details measures Illinois has taken to protect the payments and how that stacks up against steps taken in other states.  

Gig workers join the growing unemployment line: Self-employed and gig workers in Illinois will get their first jobless benefits starting May 11, Pritzker announced after he and other Democratic lawmakers sounded the alarm over ambiguity by the Trump administration stymying their ability to qualify for aid. The governor took criticism for continued technical problems in handling the deluge of claims, now at 634,000 in the state and 5.2 million in the country, and is relying on private partnerships instead of federal help to build up capacity, CBS Chicago reports. Some who qualify may have to wait months for benefits because of a past overpayment and state law, CBS Chicago details. Worker’s compensation has been expanded for all essential workers during the pandemic in a new emergency rule. 



Limited relief for small businesses: Loan help is proving hard to come by for local businesses seeking a lifeline as the federal government meets the $349 billion lending limit on its Paycheck Protection Program. So far, 44,453 loans in Illinois, totaling $12.5 billion, have been approved according to the Small Business Administration. Black-owned businesses may face the most hurdles in getting aid due to historical lending discrimination, the New York Times reports. Some local business owners are suing insurance companies for denying claims for business interruption insurance as the state has not moved to force insurers to cover COVID-19 related claims like in other states, Chicago Tribune reports.