ROUNDUP: Power plays in COVID-19 fight as peak remains out-of-sight in Chicago and Illinois

With the state stay-at-home order extended through May, officials spar over how best to manage relief and respond to the still escalating pandemic.

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Photo by April Alonso

Illinois’ stay-at-home order will now be in effect through May as coronavirus cases and deaths mount across the state, sickening more than 36,000 people and claiming the lives of more than 1,600 — including eight healthcare workers in the state so far. Residents will also be required to cover their faces in public spaces where social distancing is difficult, but restrictions on state parks, elective surgeries, and essential and non-essential businesses will be eased. Five northern Illinois mayors have asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker for the authority to reopen businesses next month. 

Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said Chicago’s stay-at-home order may extend into June and that reopening the city may be more gradual given the population density in what’s considered a national hotspot for the disease. Aldermen here are also pushing required face covering in public and for the city and essential businesses to provide employees with masks. Some black and Latino men fear that wearing masks will exacerbate racial profiling and place them in danger.

Topics: Black neighborhoods hard hit | Nursing homes | Homelessness | Protecting essential workers | Earth Day | Rent and mortgage relief | Unemployment | Small businesses shut out | Restaurants on the edge | Jail, prison, law enforcement | Schools | Immigration | Politics and power plays

VULNERABLE POPULATIONS


Targeting race: Lightfoot is stepping up efforts in three majority-black neighborhoods, Austin, Auburn-Gresham and South Shore, that are particularly hard hit by the pandemic through ‘racial equity rapid response teams.’ Chicago Tribune details a Roseland safety-net hospital fight against COVID-19 in a hard hit lower-income community on the Far South Side and The Triibe reports on how the pandemic has altered prenatal care and birth plans for some black pregnant women in Chicago. 

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Spotlight on nursing home outbreaks: The state began releasing detailed data on the impact of the pandemic on Illinois nursing homes, revealing that deaths at long-term care facilities account for nearly a quarter of all coronavirus deaths in Illinois, echoing findings of a WBEZ analysis of nursing home residents deaths due to the virus in Cook County. Seventy percent of residents at a South Shore senior home tested positive for COVID-19 where 10 people have died from the disease, and senior living centers on the Far North Side have also been hard hit, Block Club Chicago reports. Gov. J.B. Pritzker pledged to ramp up testing at all long-term care facilities. There have also been confirmed cases and five deaths among Chicago-area seniors who are clients of a state-run home care program, as well as among workers who are lacking proper protective gear, the Better Government Association reports

Housing the homeless: With concerns over outbreaks at homeless shelters rising, advocates are calling on Lightfoot to open 2,000 vacant Chicago Housing Authority units to protect the medically vulnerable, instead of just relying on hotels

Protecting essential workers: Pharmacists, hospital workers, and South Side meat packing plant employees are among essential workers seeking better protections and pay to prevent furthering outbreaks on-the-job, moves that could give rise to the city’s next labor movement, Chicago mag reports

Lightfoot is proposing an ‘anti-retaliation’ ordinance barring employers from firing or demoting an employee for staying home sick during the COVID-19 crisis and Ald. Raymond Lopez wants to create a fund to pay benefits to the families of city workers who die because they’re required to work during a disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic. These proposals are among a flurry of legislation the mayor and City Council members are pushing in response to the pandemic, Chicago Sun-Times reports.  

Earth Day: Unable to conduct in-person Earth Day cleanups this year, environmental activists and residents are campaigning city officials in two fights on the Southeast Side, an area long saddled with pollution caused by industrial plants, to stop the expansion of a waste facility and to keep a metal shredder from moving in, Block Club Chicago reports

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the state Environmental Protection Agency are reviewing the controversial demolition of an old coal plant that coated much of the Little Village neighborhood in dust earlier this month, Block Club Chicago reports

ECONOMIC FALLOUT CONTINUES 

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Rent and mortgage relief a challenge to enact: Ald. Matt Martin is proposing giving renters who’ve lost income during the crisis a 12-month grace period to pay rent, but Lightfoot raised doubts it could work. “The challenge is the mortgages,” Lightfoot said during Wednesday’s virtual city hall meeting, according to CBS Chicago. 

On the state level, lawmakers are rushing to pass legislation to suspend rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic, while also keeping landlords and lenders afloat, ahead of May 1, when payments are next due. Many are urging Pritzker to use his emergency powers to repeal the state rent control ban — action the governor says he cannot legally take, Chicago Tribune reports

Unemployment mounts: Residents continue to seek jobless benefits at record highs in Illinois, although the weekly rate of claims filed has decreased, and some who had been laid off before the crisis are worried about applying for extensions as their benefits run out, CBS Chicago reports. More waves of layoffs are expected, expanding from retail and hospitality to other sectors including public workers, Chicago Sun-Times reports

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Small businesses miss out on relief: Locals feel they’ve been shut out of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program meant to rescue small businesses. Columnist Curtis Black details how critics say the system prioritized loans for larger businesses and chains, like Potbelly’s, which received a $10 million loan. Some are hoping Illinois businesses will do better in the second round of funding of $320 billion for PPP loans expected to be enacted this week, although that too is projected to get tapped out within days. 

Restaurant industry on the edge: Chicago could permanently lose up to 1,500 independent restaurants, industry experts predict, as owners say they need a targeted recovery fund, as restaurants accounted for less than 9% of PPP loan recipients nationwide but made up the majority of layoffs. Restaurant workers can make as much as double their wages through expanded unemployment benefits in the stimulus package than from continuing to work. Politico reports

Ald. Scott Waguespack is proposing limiting the fees charged to restaurants by Grubhub and other online-delivery and ordering services to 5% to help local businesses survive, Crain’s Chicago Business reports. The sudden decline in restaurant activity means that rats may seek food from residential sources and act more boldly on abandoned streets, Chicago Tribune reports

GOVERNMENT


Jail, prison, and law enforcement: As coronavirus claims the life of a Cook County correctional officer and a sixth detainee, jail officers are suing to be paid for after-work time spent sanitizing, Chicago Sun-Times reports. Inmates are also mounting another legal challenge against conditions at the facility, considered a national hotspot, calling the situation unconstitutional. 

At the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal jail downtown, the Bureau of Prisons has repeatedly reported lower numbers of inmate coronavirus cases to the public than local officials on the ground, Chicago Sun-Times reports. Two Illinois prisons have restored attorney-client phone calls, Chicago Tribune reports, and some Illinois Senate Republicans are questioning Pritzker’s recent sentence commutations, Capitol News Illinois reports. Injustice Watch reports on how video bond court is now the norm in Cook County.   

Like in McHenry County, some Cook County commissioners want the addresses of suburban residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 disclosed to first responders as a safety measure, WBEZ reports

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Schooling: Remote learning may continue into the Fall, presenting budgeting challenges for Chicago Public Schools. Only half of CPS students who need a computer have one, WBEZ reports, and some devices won’t arrive until May. Most of the state’s 852 school districts didn’t have e-learning plans in place when schools closed in mid-March, a ProPublica Illinois-Chicago Tribune analysis found.

Pritzker announced some relief options for residents who may be struggling with their private student loan payments. The University of Illinois System has created a fund to provide financial aid to students amid a tuition hike. Undocumented students have been excluded federal emergency grants. 

Halting some immigration: President Donald Trump announced a 60-day freeze on green cards to limit competition for jobs during the pandemic, but will continue to allow temporary workers on nonimmigrant visas to enter, garnering criticism. All immigration court hearings nationwide for those not detained have been postponed until May 15, causing fear and confusion, while advocates have turned to the courts to press for the release of immigrant detainees vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, more than 1 million U.S. citizens across the country have been blocked from receiving stimulus checks because they are married to immigrants who don’t have Social Security numbers.

Power plays: The mayor sparred with aldermen who delayed a City Council vote to grant her expanded spending and contracting authority to deal with the crisis as leaked recordings portray Lightfoot having little patience for skepticism or questions from aldermen about her administration’s response to the pandemic, ProPublica Illinois reports. Crain’s Business Chicago details how shuffles in leadership have affected Cook County’s response to the pandemic. 

Some are also challenging Pritzker’s swift pandemic response measures by suing to block new rules to guarantee sick pay to essential workers diagnosed with COVID-19 without proof they got the illness on the job, and are likely to challenge his executive order shielding health care workers from some COVID-19 related malpractice suits.

Pritzker rejected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s call for states like Illinois to file for bankruptcy to unload heavy public employee pension debt instead of receiving aid from the federal government, Chicago Tribune reports.