Work and controversies of the Chicago COVID-19 official response

Both Mayor Lightfoot and the Hispanic aldermen have developed intense activity in support of the communities of the City affected by the coronavirus, with agreements, differences, progress and insufficiencies

Work and controversies of the Chicago COVID-19 official response
The Alivio Medical Center conducts COVID-19 tests at its headquarters in Berwyn and Pilsen. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Foto: Impremedia

All authorities in Chicago have worked to face the COVID-19 pandemic but there is some controversy in regards to the level of collaboration and communication between the Mayor and some Hispanic aldermen.

First, according to a statement from Mayor Lori Lightfoot Office to La Raza: “The Department of Assets, Information and Systems provided COVID retrofitting for the ward offices of all aldermen who requested this service. During the initial surge of the pandemic, the City worked with the alderman to help them receive up to $15,000 of federal reimbursement for purchase from their aldermanic expense accounts to procure various safety related materials, including PPE, disinfection supplies and communication on key COVID-19 measures.”

The mobilization against the coronavirus in Ward 22

As COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire, authorities feared the virus would hit Ward 22 hard. This area, located on the southwest side of Chicago, includes parts of Little Village. Many of its residents are essential workers and were hit financially, Alderman Mike Rodriguez told La Raza. “Our people in Ward 22 are the ones who work in industries, in essential jobs, and many can’t take days off or get paid for sick days for the kind of work they do.”

Rodriguez said many of his ward’s residents are undocumented, so they don’t qualify for federal or state aid or benefits. For that reason, he held weekly meetings in mid-March with hospital and clinic representatives that provide COVID-19 tests and with nonprofit agencies that provide funds for the undocumented and services such as food pantries, diapers, and other goods distribution. “We meet every week to have a delivery strategy and see how we’re going to fight this virus and the impact it has on our community,” he explained.

In regards to support to undocumented immigrants, Mayor Lightfoot said in a statement to La Raza: “All of Chicago’s support programs created in response to COVID-19 are available for undocumented immigrants in Chicago. Critically, this included two rounds of Housing Assistance Grants, which distributed over $37 million of financial and legal support to those impacted by shutdowns. This was designed to provide opportunities for all Chicagoans to receive assistance, regardless of their immigration status.”

Then, in August and September, Ward 22 focused its efforts on making contact tracing, the process of identifying people who may have been in contact with someone infected, in this case, COVID-19, to reduce contagion rates.

Another issue that has arisen from the pandemic has been an increase in domestic violence. Nuevo Despertar, Latina Women in Action, and other organizations are working with these families, alderman Rodriguez said.

When it comes to mental health, there are hospitals and clinics in the area that have resources for residents seeking those services, said Rodriguez, who also referred to the campaign called ‘Let’s Take Care of Our Treasure at Home’ by the Telpochcalli Community Education Project (TCEP) in Little Village, which is working on mental health issues in that ward.

Ward 25 families and businesses get help

When the pandemic began, Pilsen’s Latino neighborhood was one of the first to provide COVID-19 tests thanks to the support of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the Relief Medical Center, Ward 25 Alderman Byron Sigcho said. “Community clinics and many other organizations mobilized to pass information on the severity of the pandemic and the importance of taking care of themselves and getting tested.”

Pilsen is a neighborhood located on the southwest side of Chicago with a Mexican-majority population.

The Pilsen Food Pantry and its office worked to make sure residents of that neighborhood have a food pantry that distributes food weekly, Sigcho said. “We have been quite fortunate to have community leaders who have worked with our administration to make sure we have a community clinic, a food pantry, and access to COVID-19 testing and healthcare.”

During this pandemic, there have been sick people stuck at home and others who have died, and their families can’t afford the cost of a funeral. In the absence of resources at all levels of government, Sigcho said a coalition of community groups and his office set up an emergency fund to help people who need money for medicines, funerals, or who are in critical health.

The deadline for those grants ended, but the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council raised funds for those specific needs. “We raised about $70,000 so far to help families with these critical cases,” said the Ward 25 alderman.

Before the pandemic, it was common to see Chinatown in the southwest side of Chicago crowded with tourists and packed restaurants around the main shopping streets of Wentworth, Archer, and Cermak Road. Chinese handicraft, food, clothing, and herbal stores have decreased their sales. Now, like most Chicago businesses, they continue to struggle to stay afloat while following the City’s public health regulations and restrictions, which are still in its reopening Phase Four.

The Chinatown community was the focus of the economic crisis in Chicago businesses at the start of the pandemic. Sigcho said it started in that area because the coronavirus originated in China.

“The city of Chicago saw the economic impact since March, but this was already seen before in Chinatown. This community already had a fairly low economic activity, but now it is recovering due to its strong ability to organize and community leadership.”

The Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and Ward 25 have worked to revive the economy in that area. “In Chinatown Square, we opened up patios in restaurants. Fourteen businesses benefited from the expansion of patio permits,” explained Sigcho, also highlighting that the Chinese community has been generous as it has donated more than 30,000 masks to Ward 25 residents.

Ward 26 leadership: ‘We have not received the support we deserve’

Roberto Maldonado, alderman for Ward 26 located on the northwest side of Chicago, claimed that in seven buildings inhabited by seniors, four presented cases of COVID-19, and one had a fatality.

“As soon as I heard about the first case, I approached the [Lori Lightfoot’s] administration and asked them to send the Rapid Response Team to these buildings where these senior citizens live. They live independently, [these buildings] are not nursing homes. They said ‘yes’ and three months later, we are still waiting for them to show up in one of those buildings. They didn’t do anything,” Maldonado told La Raza.

The vast majority of people can go to authorized locations to take the COVID-19 test. Still, for many, that option is not practical. Most seniors who live in those buildings don’t have a car, Maldonado explained. “We have not received the support we deserve given the high incidence of Latino cases diagnosed positive for the virus.”

In a statement to La Raza, Mayor Lightfoot’s office said: “Very early on, Alderman Maldonado requested assistance to do rapid testing in independent living facilities. Unfortunately we did not have the capacity at that time to go into these facilities, but we have established a variety of support services to address the diverse needs and interests of older adults, from those who are active and healthy, to those residing in long-term care facilities and seniors who are fragile and may be confined to the home. Support services include home-delivered meals, help for informal/familial caregivers, intensive housekeeping for seniors whose living conditions pose a threat to their health and safety, investigations for reports of abuse and exploitation of a senior, help for grandparents raising young children, companion services, Medicare control, advocacy for seniors in long-term care facilities, seniors employment training and more. These services are available wherever seniors are and can be accessed via the Chicago Senior Services Hotline at 312-744-4016, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., via email at Aging@CityofChicago.org and Chicago.gov/Seniors.”

Since undocumented immigrants didn’t have access to federal aid, Maldonado said the Lightfoot Administration was asked to allocate funds for them. “The $2 million they gave were for the general population, and the first to come forward to request these funds were the first to receive them.”

Maldonado refers to the $2 million housing assistance fund to help Chicago residents who were behind on rent and mortgage payments due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Alderman Maldonado said that he has had to find resources to help the residents in his jurisdiction during the pandemic. The ward also has distributed thousands of masks to essential workers in local supermarkets and stores and seniors residing in those buildings. He added that his ward informs the public through social media to let them know about their offer. 

Ward 35 alderman: What happened to those hotel beds?

When the stay-at-home order took effect, Ward 35 Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa and his staff worked to find volunteers to go door-to-door, leaving information in English and Spanish for the northwest side residents of Chicago about where to get free food and get tested.

They also provided information via email on the resources available to small entrepreneurs in their ward.

A support network, which included those same volunteers, was created to assist residents in Ward 35 neighborhoods, including Logan Square, Hermosa, Irving Park, Albany Park, and Avondale. “We work with them to also make sure that seniors receive their medications,” Ramirez Rosa said. “We also helped more than 600 people complete their unemployment application in a single week, and we helped more than 1,000 people complete the application for the support and housing assistance that was given through the lottery system a few months ago. And we continue working helping families,” he said.

Members of the City Council Latino Caucus sent a letter to the Mayor asking her to work with them, said Alderman Ramirez Rosa, who is also a member of the Latino Caucus. The letter’s purpose was to create a public program to help Chicago’s undocumented immigrants who lost their jobs and don’t qualify for any federal assistance. The Mayor “didn’t work with us to find public funds. She did something, but very little, and it was all private money,” Ramirez Rosa said.

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot has created some good programs that are also available to the undocumented community, but she has not done enough,” he said.

ZIP Code 60639 includes much of Belmont Cragin, a neighborhood that has become a hotspot for COVID-19 infections in the northwest side of Chicago.

As of Sept. 14, this Latino-majority neighborhood had 4,486 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. ZIP Code 60639 posted a weekly positivity rate of 12.9 percent.

Belmont Cragin-area councilmen met with officials from the Chicago Department of Public Health to request resources for the population of that area, and “because the situation is out of control and our communities need help,” said Ramirez Rosa, who represents a part of the Belmont Cragin area.

When the council members asked the department of health as to why there are so many cases of COVID-19 in the 60639 ZIP Code area, the officials explained that it was because “many people get COVID-19 in their workplace, they go home, where they live with many others, and then everyone in the house gets sick,” Ramirez Rosa said.

One of the ways to prevent COVID-19 infections in homes is for infected people to isolate themselves. However, not everyone can completely separate themselves from others if they live in an apartment, Ramirez Rosa said, adding that he recalls that the city rented hotel rooms in Chicago for people diagnosed with coronavirus, those who believed to have been exposed, first responders and healthcare workers.

City officials said that initiative was an effort to stop the coronavirus spread and ease the burden on hospitals.

Alderman Ramirez Rosa wondered what happened to those beds so that people with COVID-19 could stay in hotels and avoid infecting others at home. “So far, the vast majority of cases in the Latino community happened because when they get sick, they go home and get everyone else infected,” he added.

In regards to those beds, a statement from Mayor Lightfoot office explained that the “Chicago Department of Public Health has partnered with the Cook County Department of Public Health to provide isolation housing to COVID-19 positive individuals who are not able to isolate safely at home. To access this resource, there is a central intake referral form that can be completed either by the health care provider or the person in need of isolation housing.  The central intake team will coordinate with the person needing isolation housing to arrange transportation to and from the facility.”

Ward 40 organizes a community network

In light of the difficult times due to the pandemic, Ward 40 Alderman Andre Vasquez has organized a network with area residents in the northside of Chicago to establish contacts and help those in need. He says he uses virtual platforms and social networks to spread information and keep in touch with residents.

“We have volunteers who call people every week to find out if they need help, we have others who go pick up medicine, food, whatever our neighbors need in vulnerable areas, and we also have meetings every week to assist the different people who need it,” Vasquez told La Raza.

Experts say that the current situation has destabilized Chicago’s business economy, forcing companies to lay off employees and businesses to shut down permanently. “In the city, about 30 percent of the businesses have closed, and some will never reopen,” said the Alderman for Ward 40.

Vasquez said that his office helps the Hispanic businessmen and businesswomen who don’t dominate the English language by offering information in Spanish and by assisting them to stay connected with their local chambers of commerce to receive guidance and assistance about the federal, state, and city grants.

What council members think of the Mayor’s response

La Raza asked Chicago council members from predominantly Hispanic-populated areas for their opinion on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s response from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic until today. Mayor Lightfoot also shared her vision.

Rossana Rodriguez, Ward 33

“The problem has been a lack of collaboration. Mayor Lori Lightfoot makes her decisions with her team and then informs us. We don’t have any participation in the decisions that are made, and this has an impact because we know our communities.”

“The priorities are crossed; it seems to me that there was not much willpower to make sure that the most marginalized people received most of the aid. But with the emergency powers vote, there were a lot of things that we couldn’t really participate in because Mayor Lightfoot has the prerogative to handle that money…”

Roberto Maldonado, Ward 26

“Unfortunately, I say this with sorrow, I cannot say that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has been effective in truly providing the services and opportunities to our Latino communities. We’ve had a lot of blah, blah, blah, but little action from the Lightfoot Administration.”

Andre Vasquez, Ward 40

“No one knew that this pandemic was going to happen in 2020, it has been difficult for everyone. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made good decisions and bad decisions. Anyone in that position is going to make decisions that way in the face of a pandemic.”

Mike Rodriguez, Ward 22

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s work is incomplete because we are still in the middle of the pandemic, I see that she has done some things well and others badly. We have to keep working to send the funds more directly to our communities.”

Carlos Ramirez Rosa, Ward 35

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot at this time has a very difficult job, and at the same time, she has not worked enough with aldermen to address the problems our city is facing right now.”

“We as aldermen are representatives of our wards, and we were elected just like Mayor Lightfoot to represent the communities of the City of Chicago. We are willing and ready to help her, to face all the problems that our city is facing, but what has happened in recent months is that Mayor Lightfoot has not worked hand-in-hand with the aldermen.”

Byron Sigcho, Ward 25

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot owes us a stronger coordination among the 50 Ward throughout the city. There has been quite a lack of coordination and communication. We have practically faced the crisis with little or no help, we have even seen that the state and Cook County have been more proactive in coordinating initiatives on housing, on health, on violence prevention and mental health.”

“She owes us better results. We know that the situation is critical, but only with the collaboration, communication, and coordination of all wards, the Mayor’s office, and all government entities can we face a severe crisis.”

Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago

“The pandemic has presented a communication challenge, but we are confident that our engagement with elected officials and other Chicagoans has met the challenge. When the Stay at Home Order first went into place, the City of Chicago began sending out daily emails to aldermen and their staffs with important COVID-related information such as how to apply for rent relief and other City services. As the numbers improved, we have shifted to weekly emails, which continue today. Additionally, Dr. Arwady [Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health] has provided numerous briefings on COVID-19 statistics and trends, and we have coordinated the drop-off of hand sanitizer and thousands of masks to the aldermen. Finally, staffers reach out to all aldermen on a rotating basis to determine whether the aldermen need assistance with any matters of concern.”

The ‘Lens On Lightfoot’ project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.

The editorial production of La Raza is made possible in part thanks to the support of the Chicago Community Trust, the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism/Facebook Journalism Project and the Google News Initiative. We appreciate their help.