ROUNDUP: Race takes center stage ahead of Illinois’ anticipated COVID-19 peak

Stark disparities in the impact of the crisis emerge as the state marks one month of staying at home and officials are pressed to do more to protect the most vulnerable, including essential workers and the incarcerated.

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Photo by Max Herman

Demonstrators display signs in support of freeing detainees from Cook County Jail where an outbreak of COVID-19 is escalating as they drive in a "decarceration caravan" protest on April 7, 2020. (Photo by Max Herman)

This week marked one month of the Illinois’ stay-at-home order and data on the first several weeks of the pandemic reveal stark racial disparities in the impact of the disease locally and nationwide. Residents and officials are bracing for further economic and institutional fallout as politics, fragile projections and costly preparations make the future — and the anticipated ‘peak’ of cases in Illinois — unclear. Communities and advocates continue to agitate for officials to better protect the most vulnerable, including essential workers and the incarcerated, while options for relief prove limited and slow coming.  

Topics: Racial disparities | Politics, preparedness and testing | Illinois’ peak projections | Job loss | Essential workers fight for their rights | Groceries, food stamps and food deserts | Transit and services | Policing | Jails and prisons | Remote learning at schools | Housing | Elections, official meetings and FOIA | Government finances face a cliff |Media and entertainment | Religious services

Race takes center stage

As more states and cities release data on the demographics of the spread of the virus, the disparate racial impact of the disease dominated headlines across the country this week as available statistics largely show that black people are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic, especially in big cities. The population is particularly vulnerable to the disease due to long standing health disparities, barriers to access, segregation and income inequality that make black people more likely to be exposed to the disease — because they’re serving as essential workers or are too economically marginalized to be able to practice the full extent of social distancing — less likely to be able to get the timely care they need when sick, and more likely to have preexisting health conditions that make the coronavirus lethal. 

RELATED:

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

 

Chicago and Illinois are no exception, as The Chicago Reporter detailed earlier this week, finding that so far, black people in Illinois are dying from COVID-19 at more than triple the rate of white people. And Chicago, where black residents account for a whopping 70% of those killed in the first few weeks of the outbreak, is ground zero.

“Fundamentally, the systemic and institutional racism that have driven these inequities over the years, we are now seeing play out in our COVID data,” Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner, said at a press conference this week, where the mayor rolled out a new Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to battle the spread of the virus specifically on the South and West sides, and ordered better data sharing from healthcare providers, including complete demographic information on COVID-19 patients. 

Missing data on race and ethnicity are hampering the ability to track the racial dynamics of the pandemic and medical responses nationally. Locally, the field for race was left blank or information was missing in about a quarter of confirmed cases on both the city and state levels, making officials surmise that the impact on Latinx communities is likely being undercounted. 

Even for those not contracting the disease, African Americans are also disproportionately suffering the economic fallout of the pandemic due to job patterns and a racial wealth gap that makes them less likely to be able to weather unemployment, Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ detail. Local black elected officials are also demanding wide-ranging relief, Chicago Tribune reports

Testing the politics of preparedness 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and President Donald Trump continued to exchange barbs this week over the adequacy of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus crisis as Illinois was sent 600 ventilators, while the governor says the state needs thousands and far more protective gear than what was sent. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot were also critical of controversial comments by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner about who lays claim to a federal stockpile of medical supplies. Lightfoot, however, said she wasn’t going to “take the bait” in response to Trump’s remarks, confirming that she told Vice President Michael Pence that the Army Corps of Engineers did good work turning McCormick Place into an alternative care facility, one of several such projects across Illinois, ABC 7 Chicago reports

“We are still not where we need to be on the testing front,” Pritzker said on Wednesday, detailing why the state’s efforts are falling short of his goal of 10,000 tests per day. 

In some cases, tests are available but being processed slowly as drive-up testing sites administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with big box retailers have lagged in providing results, Chicago Tribune reports, and there’s a backlog of at least 115,000 COVID-19 tests at Quest Diagnostics, where employees are being asked to voluntarily go on furlough, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. However, Walgreens is expanding drive-through testing in Illinois using Abbott Laboratories’ new fast response test, the Daily Herald reports, a family health clinic has been converted into a coronavirus screening and testing center in Pilsen, and drive-through testing is also coming to the South suburbs

Roseland Community Hospital became the first “safety net” testing site for people living in that part of the city where patients will be tested even if they do not have insurance, CBS Chicago reports, and a new type of coronavirus test that will quickly detect immunity is being rolled out, Chicago Tribune reports. But there are still no testing sites on the West Side, Block Club Chicago reports

Preparing for the Illinois peak 

A dispatch by The New Yorker describes Illinois and city officials’ frustration in getting help from the White House and their attempts to turn to other local leaders and work around the federal government to meet the needs of the local response, feeling that the state is ‘on its own’ in handling the crisis.  

RELATED:

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

 

The Chicago Sun-Times details how Illinois’ assistant comptroller raced north on I-55 with a $3.4 million check to pay for 1.5 million N95 respirator masks from a Chinese supplier in a time sensitive deal negotiated by state officials. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office came into possession of a 40,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse in the city to serve as a surge center for coronavirus victims, WTTW reports, and the state bid on 12,000 body bags to distribute to municipalities, Chicago Sun-Times reports. California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent over 100 ventilators, winning praise from Pritzker and Lightfoot shot back against a Sun-Times piece on gaps in the city’s pandemic preparedness plan.   

Pritzker issued an executive order called the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act granting many health care providers sweeping immunity from civil liability during the COVID-19 crisis as well as additional powers for the governor. The state is also offering essential workers child care assistance

Hospitals are preparing for the worst by rushing to staff up by offering increased pay, WBEZ reports, building more isolation rooms according to ABC 7 Chicago, and offering hazard pay to nurses, Crain’s Chicago Business reports

The pandemic is, however, surfacing disparities between hospitals themselves. Some safety net hospitals that serve large numbers of low-income patients can’t afford to match the higher pay and additional benefits offered by staffing firms working for the city and are losing employees, Crain’s Chicago Business reports. Local officials are warning that the pandemic could be the last nail in the coffin for Loretto Hospital on the West Side, Austin’s largest private employer, Austin Weekly News reports. When Cook County Health announced it would temporarily close the emergency room at Provident Hospital on the South Side after an employee there tested positive for COVID-19, nurses and healthcare workers protested, saying the abrupt decision would endanger the largely African American community the hospital serves, according to Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM. Provident’s emergency patients are being taken in at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Hyde Park Herald reports

Will all these measures be enough? Intensive care beds are filling up in Chicago, the Tribune reported, and COVID-19 patients now make up half of those at Stroger Hospital but a report obtained by WBEZ painted a ‘cautiously optimistic’ picture, finding that there are still enough breathing machines and room in Illinois hospital ICUs for now. 

A prominently cited research group reduced its estimates for how many Illinoisans will die during the pandemic and forecasted an earlier peak in cases for the state, meaning local hospitals will be able to handle the influx of patients without being overrun, Chicago Tribune and WGN report. 

However, a case study published this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showcases how fragile the projected spread of COVID-19 can be, profiling how a single ‘super-spreader’ sparked a cluster of 16 cases including three deaths in Chicago by sharing takeout, attending a funeral and a family birthday party within a few days. 

Other outbreaks in Illinois have occurred at nursing homes in Lake County and Willowbrook, and the West Ridge neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. About half of the people who have needed treatment for COVID-19 in hospitals in Chicago were under age 60, CBS Chicago reports. Some Illinois nursing home residents who have been hospitalized during the COVID-19 pandemic have been stuck in limbo because their facilities are scared to take them back, WBEZ reports

With the number of coronavirus cases predicted to peak in Chicago as soon as Saturday, Rush is being seen as the city’s bellwether hospital, Chicago Tribune reports

Job loss breaks more records as relief rolls out slowly 

More than 201,000 Illinois workers filed for unemployment insurance benefits last week, many for the first time, breaking the previous weeks’ records. In total, one in 12 workers statewide have filed claims, a figure close to what is happening nationally with 6.6 million people seeking jobless claims, meaning that roughly one in 10 of U.S. workers lost their livelihoods in the first three weeks of the pandemic. 

RELATED:

How the coronavirus recession puts service workers at risk


Businesses in Illinois notified state officials of about 14,100 layoffs in March and an overwhelming number of closings were in the Chicago area, Chicago Sun-Times reports. Approximately 83,000 people applied for just 2,000 city grants to help unemployed Chicagoans pay their rent or mortgages, The Daily Line and Chicago Sun-Times report

Lightfoot signed a new executive order ensuring that undocumented residents have access to city services and relief funds as households of people with mixed immigration status are exlcuded from the federal stimulus package, Borderless Magazine details

Chicago’s $100 million loan program for small businesses has been swamped with about 7,000 applications since starting to receive them on March 31, and has approved just 10 applications this week, Crain’s Business Chicago reports. The mayor shot down a proposal to use TIF money to provide small businesses “survival grants” of up to $50,000, Chicago Sun-Times reports, as longtime TIF critic Tom Tresser calls for ending the program in order to more equitably spend tax revenues amid coronavirus fallout. 

Illinois is behind on providing relief for gig workers, as unemployment is not an option for 10-99 private contractors and the state’s $1.4 billion in unemployment funds is not expected to be enough to meet the demand, Chicago Tribune reports. Cook County created a $10 million immediate relief fund for suburban businesses and gig workers. Navigating assistance programs is not easy for small businesses and many neighborhood restaurants may not survive the pandemic, Chicago mag notes.  

The Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund made its first distribution of $5.5 million to nonprofits in the state blindsided by the spread of the coronavirus, NBC Chicago reports, and a Chicago Labor Relief Fund is offering help for unemployed union workers, CBS Chicago reports

On the national front, technical glitches hampered the rollout of a $350 billion loan program meant to rescue millions of small businesses. A group of black CEOs wrote to the top lawmakers in D.C. asking for a quarter of the new Paycheck Protection Program be dedicated to black-owned businesses and nonprofits, given long standing barriers to black entrepreneurship. 

Meanwhile, as many as 10 million low-income, childless adults in the United States who are eligible for the federal government’s stimulus payment program may be at risk of missing out because they aren’t required to file tax returns, making it harder for the IRS to verify their income, know who they are or where to find them, CNN reports

Essential workers fight for their rights while risking it all 

Amazon workers in the Chicago area have staged multiple walkouts as some warehouse employees have tested positive for COVID-19, demanding safer working conditions and expanded sick leave policy, columnist Curtis Black details

COMMENTARY:

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

The family of an Illinois Walmart employee who died March 25 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the retailer for allegedly failing to provide a clean working environment and ignoring her reported COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks, Crain’s Chicago Business reports

Fast-food workers on the frontlines of drive-thru and pickup services are pushing corporate chains to provide protective gear and a $15 minimum wage, Bloomberg reports, and Trader Joe’s is reportedly opposing unionization efforts by employees. The Illinois Manufacturers’ Association is urging Democratic lawmakers to cease negotiations on a bill requiring refineries to pay their workers the equivalent of the local prevailing wage paid to union laborers, the Daily Line reports

Meanwhile, the White House has issued new guidelines to make it easier for essential workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 to get back to work if they do not have symptoms of the coronavirus. 

Virtual groceries not an option for all

With some grocery store workers in Chicago testing positive for coronavirus, many customers are turning to online grocery services and Chicago farmers markets are also trying to go virtual. One group of consumers who don’t have those options are 1.8 million Illinois food stamp recipients, who can’t use their benefits to pay for groceries online and have them delivered, Chicago Tribune reports. Some local food pantries and service agencies are trying to deliver goods and fill in the gaps of food deserts, Chicago Tribune reports, which are most likely to affect black Chicagoans, says Block Club Chicago. A southwest suburban company that supplies food companies and grocers is hiring to keep up with demand in the Chicago area, CBS Chicago reports

Roughly two-thirds of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of food pantries remain open, but they’ve shifted to have families ‘grab-and-go’ pre packaged boxes or bags, storing nearly 26,000 boxes at the United Center, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Transitions in transit and services 

An empty CTA L brown line car on March 19, 2020.

The Chicago Transit Authority has introduced rear-door boarding, is allowing drivers to stop picking up passengers if buses become crowded, and is not enforcing fare payment where card readers are not present. Streetsblog Chicago discussed the campaign for safer pandemic working conditions with local union chief Keith D. Hill as at least 10 CTA workers have tested positive for COVID-19. The agency says it has enough cash on hand to keep buses and trains running through the end of April, but the board approved a $40 million line of credit as it will be forced to borrow to continue operating if federal bailout money doesn’t come soon, WTTW reports. Across Illinois, transit agencies rely on now dwindling sales taxes for the bulk of their budgets, meaning mass transit may have a more difficult future ahead than after the Great Recession, New York Times reports

With Americans driving less because of the pandemic, auto insurers such as Allstate and American Family are offering refunds, Chicago Sun-Times and WGN report. ComEd is warning customers to be on alert for potential scams targeting individuals and small-business owners, Chicago Defender reports

Chicago’s 2,000 garbage refuse collection workers are picking up 50% more garbage during the statewide, stay-at-home order but without the masks, their union leader tells the Chicago Sun-Times

Government workers, including a fourth city employee and a Chicago firefighter, have died from the disease as others are getting infected, including more than a dozen Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s office employees and low-wage home care workers contracted by the state to care for vulnerable seniors, the Better Government Association reports. Some OEMC workers are questioning their designation as essential workers since the traffic they typically regulate has disappeared under stay-at-home orders, ABC 7 Chicago reports

Government officials themselves are also managing the risk of exposure as a governor’s office staffer at the Thompson Center tested positive for COVID-19, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is self-isolating after a member of her security detail tested positive, and Lightfoot fended off criticism for getting her hair cut without wearing a mask. 

Policing a pandemic 

More than 100 employees of the Chicago Police Department have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 7% of the force called out sick the day after an officer died from the disease, Block Club Chicago reports. Police union President Kevin Graham is calling for stricter safety measures to protect officers, WTTW reports, and newly-appointed Chicago police Supt. David Brown said boosting morale among officers on the front lines of the war against the coronavirus is one of his top priorities, the Chicago Sun-Times reports, along with complying with the federal consent decree. 

Another priority is quelling gun violence, which Brown called the city’s other ‘pandemic’ taking away resources from the fight against COVID-19, Chicago Tribune reports. It’s too early to tell whether expected summer violence might slow down during the duration of stay-at-home orders, The Trace reports, but WBEZ notes that violent crime and murders did not decline during Brown’s tenure as Dallas police chief.   

Chicago police officers will conduct roadside safety and informational checkpoints in each police district to enforce the ongoing “stay-at-home” order. In the last week, CPD has dispersed group gatherings more than 1,500 times and has issued 11 citations and made three arrests, Chicago Tribune reports. Lightfoot’s sweeping new 9 p.m. curfew order on liquor stores also gives police powers to fine or arrest non-compliers and revoke the liquor licenses of businesses who don’t abide by the new rule, which has already caused customers to flood local delivery apps, Chicago Sun-Times reports. 

In McHenry County, five law enforcement agencies are suing seeking a court order that would force the local health department to disclose the names and addresses of confirmed COVID-19 patients go give dispatchers the ability to notify officers before they come in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, Daily Herald reports

Escalating hotspots: Jails and prisons 

Pritzker signed an executive order allowing medical furloughs for Illinois Department of Corrections inmates vulnerable to coronavirus while the state attempts to fend off lawsuits in court by arguing that a mass release or prisoners would threaten public safety, WBEZ reports. A second Stateville prisoner died from COVID-19, where advocates have declared a ‘disaster’ amid an outbreak behind bars that is putting pressure on the local hospital system, we reported last week. Advocates and families maintain that Pritzker’s measures are not enough, Chicago Sun-Times reports

RELATED:

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

 

A federal judge denied a bid for a mass release of detainees at Cook County Jail, which has been named the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections in a New York Times analysis. The Chicago Reporter’s Josh McGhee details legal efforts to release medically vulnerable inmates, as well as those who are only being held because they can’t afford bond as the jail sees hundreds of COVID-19 cases among detainees and staff. The first detainee to die, 59-year-old Jeffery Pendleton was among those the public defender was pushing for release as he had been denied a motion for reduced bond. A second detainee died from COVID-19 Thursday. Jail staffers have complained that they don’t have access to personal protective gear and hand sanitizer, allegations that the sheriff’s office denies, Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune report. 

Among those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms at the jail is Charles Thomas, a former University of Chicago student who had been shot by campus police in 2018, Injustice Watch reports. Now 23, he’s been in the jail since October on a technical violation of electronic monitoring after he suffered a second psychotic episode. His parents hope his case will now be transferred to a special mental health court which will provide for his release. 

A 16-year-old juvenile detainee in Cook County has tested positive for COVID-19, as well as two employees who work for the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Innocence claims by Illinois prisoners may be stalled due to the pandemic, Chicago Tribune reports. Last year, the state led the nation in exonerations. 

Outside carceral systems, friends and families of those stuck behind bars during the coronavirus crisis are rallying to get them out and for officials to implement better quarantine measures at facilities. Neighbors are pushing for the release of a 55-year-old North Side handyman being held on bond at Cook County Jail, Chicago Tribune reports, Austin Weekly News reports on similar efforts of a family on the West Side, and advocates staged a driveby “decarceration caravan” protest on Wednesday – see photos and video at chicagoreporter.com

A mixed bag for e-learning

Remote learning begins Monday at Chicago Public Schools. It’ll vary greatly from school to school, with some relying mostly on paper packets and others conducting lessons mostly online WBEZ reports. In a massive effort to help close the technology gap, the district is scrambling to get 100,000 computers to the highest-need students, giving priority to eighth graders, juniors and seniors because they are at critical moments in their educational careers, as well as students in temporary living situations, English learners, those taking Advanced Placement or dual credit courses and those with special needs. But 15,000 kids will still be left without a computer and internet access, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times report. Virtual learning will also be quite varied across charter schools, Chalkbeat Chicago reports. Some are calling on Comcast and other internet providers to do more to help bridge the digital divide, Chalkbeat Chicago reports. Questions also remain about how much new material should be taught. 

The situation is not entirely without precedent, as Chicago turned to school-by-radio programs in 1937 when public schools closed for three weeks because of the polio epidemic, Washington Post details — a much shorter duration than the ‘lost school year’ students are grappling with today. 

COMMENTARY:

COVID-19 closures could hit historically black colleges particularly hard

The stakes are especially high for families of kids with complex medical needs, Chicago Sun-Times details. Families of babies and toddlers are also struggling to enroll in new early intervention services where the state covers the cost of therapy to help those younger than 3 years diagnosed with a disability or a developmental delay, The Daily Line reports

City Colleges’ significant investment in digital education in recent years, and programs to loan students needed equipment, have aided a quick and effective transition to online learning, Chicago Sun-Times reports.  Illinois’ public universities are asking Congress for additional financial relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic, CBS Chicago reports. Chicago Tribune details the financial hit the University of Illinois, the state’s largest public university, is taking. University of Chicago students are threatening a tuition strike unless rates are reduced by half, Chicago Sun-Times and CBS Chicago report. Nationally, the sudden shift to video conferencing has been especially tough on low-income students and those with unstable living situations as well as on historically black colleges.  

Housing adjustments 

Rent collection fell in April, but not by as much as expected by Chicago-area landlords, Crain’s Chicago Business report. Both tenants and landlords are more nervous about negotiating next month’s rent for hard hit workers, WBEZ reports.

For property owners, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi said that all homes, businesses and other real estate parcels could see their property values adjusted due to COVID-19’s effect on the market, while the $2 trillion federal CARES Act offers relief to about 70% of those with home mortgages. Meanwhile, the federal government is poised to weaken the Community Reinvestment Act, a civil rights-era law meant to reduce discrimination in lending and is refusing to respond to requests to extend the public comment period amid the pandemic. 

Chicago has opened shelters at five new locations to house the homeless during the coronavirus crisis, AP reports and the Chicago Fire Department has stepped in to help transport homeless people from area hospitals to various YMCA’s and hotels, WGN reports

Keeping government going through elections, meetings, and FOIA

At 38%, Chicago’s primary election turnout was nowhere near a record low and actually set records for mail-in ballots and early voting in suburban Cook County, despite concern and criticism over proceeding with the polls during the crisis, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times report. But, as Wisconsin proceeded with their in-person primary election this week, many are urging Illinois and other states to immediately prepare for the general election in November to be held on time and be conducted mostly by mail. 

Chicago aldermen held a dry run for next week’s virtual City Council meeting in which the public will participate by phone, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Lightfoot supports a move to suspend deadlines for government bodies to respond to public records requests for as long as the statewide stay-at-home order remains in effect, a decision to be made by Attorney General Kwame Raoul, Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business report. 

City, county and state finances face a cliff 

Illinois faces revenue losses of billions due to the coronavirus crisis according to a study by fiscal experts at the University of Illinois in one of the first efforts to quantify the pandemic’s impact on the state’s budget, Crain’s Chicago Business and Chicago Tribune report. 

The state’s pension systems are reassuring retirees that payments will be processed as usual, Chicago Tribune reports.

Cook County has reserves to cover expenses for a little over two months, Preckwinkle said this week, meaning crunch time for the “tremendous financial challenges” ahead won’t be until May, Chicago Sun-Times reports, as the county plans to tap the entirety of its $100 million revolving line of credit with BMO Harris, Crain’s Chicago Business reports.

Lightfoot continues to express confidence in the city’s financial situations despite grave concerns about the drop in revenue due to coronavirus interruptions may upend the budget  and is pushing to have future federal COVID relief packages include not only money to reimburse the city for extra health care and related costs, but also to make up for money not coming in from sales, income and other taxes, Crains’ Chicago Business reports

A painful week for media and entertainment 

PERSPECTIVE:

Coronavirus shapes a new role for houses of worship and faith communities

Local news outlets across the country are enacting layoffs, furloughs, closures and cancelled print editions as advertising and live events take a crippling hit during the coronavirus crisis. Tribune Publishing announced permanent pay cuts for non-union staffers that will range from 2% to 10% off their current salaries, effective April 19.

Legendary Chicago folk artist John Prine passed away this week from complications of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Pritzker says all large gatherings planned for summertime in Illinois may need to be canceled

Religious services go virtual 

With three major religious holidays — Easter week, Passover, and Ramadan — underway or on the horizon in April, Chicago-area congregations are moving online as Prtizker has urged. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, removed the Catholic obligation to receive communion during the Easter season, Chicago Sun-Times reports

Chicago Tribune is maintaining a list of available online services from local congregations.