Chicago in times of COVID-19: Fights, consequences and perspectives

Since Illinois’ stay-home-order went into effect in March of 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic has severely hit the health of Chicago residents, but it has also affected the economy, education, housing, and employment sectors, particularly in the Hispanic community. Advocates also claim that the pandemic has spurred an increase in street violence. La Raza explored the work and initiatives by organizations and local authorities to confront the COVID-19 crisis and its impacts on Chicago's Latino community

The Alivio Medical Center conducts COVID-19 tests at its headquarters in Berwyn and Pilsen. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
The Alivio Medical Center conducts COVID-19 tests at its headquarters in Berwyn and Pilsen. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Foto: Impremedia

No one ever imagined that a pandemic would completely disrupt 2020. It began when China notified the World Health Organization about the coronavirus on Dec. 31, 2019, which had originated in the city of Wuhan in late 2019. The virus was later called COVID-19.

When the United States reported its first case on Jan. 20, 2020, in the state of Washington, the alarms went off. The coronavirus was at home, and soon after, it began to take its first victims’ lives.

In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced on March 16, the first death due to COVID-19 in the state. It was Patricia Frieson, an African American retired nurse from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood in southwest Chicago. Frieson, 61, with a history of respiratory problems, had contact with another person who had been infected by the coronavirus, authorities said. The woman died at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

On March 21, Governor Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order for residents throughout the state, a measure that lasted until May 29. The reopening process to boost the state’s economy began in phases.

As of November 12, 2020, there have been 125,549 cases and 3,163 deaths from COVID-19 in Chicago. The Latino community has been hit exceptionally hard as they make up about 37.58 percent of the confirmed cases (that figure was over 45% during the summer) and 33.03 percent of this disease’s deaths.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot established five phases to reopen the city’s economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city is currently in Phase Four, known as “phasing out.” Lightfoot said the plan complements Governor Pritzker’s plan to reopen the state.

Chicago continues to fight the battle against the coronavirus spread in different neighborhoods, with African Americans and Latinos being the most vulnerable.

The city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT) was created in April due to the high rates of COVID-19 infections in Chicago’s African-American communities. RERRT then expanded its efforts to the Latino communities after more and more Latinos were being affected. The RERRT team seeks to address the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on minority communities.

In Chicago, Southwest neighborhoods like Little Village, Brighton Park, Gage Park, and Chicago Lawn and Belmont Cragin in the northwest side, all predominantly Latino communities have recorded much of the state’s coronavirus cases, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Latinos are the population most affected by the pandemic in Chicago in regard of the cases. For example, the ZIP Code 60623 area has one of the highest COVID-19 infection and deaths rates in Chicago. This area encompasses Little Village and the mostly African American neighborhood of North Lawndale.

Researchers and residents point out that the high incidence of coronavirus infections in Latino communities has to do with the increased exposure to the virus, either because many essential workers reside in those areas or because they live in crowded homes. Experts also say that chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, mostly affecting Latinos and African Americans, make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

In mid-October, Mayor Lightfoot said that the city was already facing the second wave of COVID-19, adding that the City could apply new restrictive measures to curb the pandemic.

Amid a raise in cases and hospitalizations, Governor Pritzker established new restrictions to bars and restaurants, in place starting October 30th in Chicago: indoor service is not allowed, outdoor service must end at 11 p.m., when also all alcohol sales should end.

Later, the City of Chicago established new measures, starting on November 16. The Office of the Mayor establishes several guidelines: only leave home to go to work or school, or for essential needs such as seeking medical care, going to the grocery store or pharmacy, picking up take-out food, or receiving deliveries; if someone need to leave home, practice social distancing by staying 6 feet away from others and wearing a face covering at all times; and do not have gatherings in your home with anybody outside of your household (except for essential staff such as home health care workers or educators), even with trusted family or friends, among other recommendations.

And effective November 20, Governor Pritzker announced that museums, theatres and casinos must close, capacity in retail stores must be reduced to 25 percent (grocery stores and farmacies can stay at 50 percent). Pritzker also indicated that indoor sports and activities require removal of face coverings, such as facials, and bear trimming must stop too.

While facing a second wave of COVID-19, what the Hispanic community did before to fight the pandemic has relevance and meaning anew.

‘Pandemic’ budget

The City of Chicago projected a budget gap of $1.2 billion for fiscal year 2021, primarily due to the pandemic’s economic impact, which caused widespread financial disruption in Chicago.

Lightfoot called her 2021 spending plan a “pandemic” budget and initially said that the gap could be balanced through federal assistance, among other sources of revenue. However, given the uncertainty over federal aid’s approval, Lightfoot announced on Oct. 19, 2020, that it will seek to alleviate this deficit by increasing property and gasoline taxes, laying off city workers, and refinancing debt.

According to a survey of more than 3,400 people in four major cities in the United States, half of Chicago’s households, including African American and Latino families, reported that they had faced financial problems due to COVID-19. That sample included 529 adults living in Chicago. The report ‘The Impact of Coronavirus on Households in Major US Cities’  (media.npr.org/assets/img/2020/09/08/cities-report-090920-final.pdf) was created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, and NPR in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago from surveys and data collected from July 1 to Aug. 1.

The study found that in Chicago, 69 percent of African American households, 63 percent of eligible households, and 59 percent of those with an annual income of less than $100,000 reported severe financial problems during the COVID-19. Half of the households in Chicago reported job loss or reduced wages and working hours since the pandemic began.

Unpaid bills, late rent, mortgage, and utility payments have been the problems that many Chicagoans have faced during the pandemic. Many have exhausted their savings, the survey detailed, and have also faced problems accessing health- and child-care services.

State and local authorities have indicated that as COVID-19 cases are reduced, restrictions aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus will be relaxed, and steps will be taken to reopen the economy in Chicago further. However, when autumn arrives, cases have begun to rebound. There are fears of a more significant exacerbation during the upcoming winter. Therefore, health experts and authorities have stressed the urgent need for residents to follow social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.

Alma Gomez, owner of Zoey Salon in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

I. The different faces of the pandemic

Since the state-home-order announcement in March of 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus, the pandemic has hit not only the health of the population but also Chicago’s economic activity, employment, education, and housing. Peace-promoting groups claim that it has even caused an increase in violence in the streets.

‘We have to be ready for the difficulties’

When Alma Gomez’s nephew told her that the City of Chicago was awarding grants to micro businesses, she didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to apply. She had been out of work for three months because of the pandemic.

Gomez owns Salon Zoey, located in the Rogers Park neighborhood in North Chicago. The businesswoman receives assistance for her business from the Rogers Park Business Alliance, which assisted her in applying for the grant.

The Chicago Micro Business Recovery Grant was awarded by the City to micro businesses through a lottery system to help them survive the pandemic’s impact. The winners received $5,000, and Gomez was one of them.

“I received an email congratulating me that I had won a grant of $ 5,000. I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t expect it. The money helped me to pay three months of rent for the business premises and some public services,” Gomez said while working on a client’s hair at her salon, which operates following the City’s health-safety regulations.

Her beauty salon has been in operation for six years. She said she has been a cosmetologist for 20 years.

There are no weddings, no marriages or parties, and now her services are by appointment only. She added that she doesn’t have a waiting room at her hair salon and is working hard to keep her business afloat. “This is my life; this is my job; this is my profession. I don’t know how to do anything other than this. I’m fighting to keep my business open and hoping that everything will return to normal,” she said.

There are more than 600 businesses of different nationalities in Rogers Park. And along Clark Street, between Devon and Howard, there are 450 businesses, of which 150 are Latino businesses, according to the Rogers Park Business Alliance (RPBA). This organization assists entrepreneurs looking to start or improve a business.

Around 25 percent of the population in Rogers Park is Hispanic, and ten languages are spoken in that area, including Spanish, according to RPBA.

Rebeca Fernandez, a bilingual program manager for the Rogers Park Business Alliance, says that the pandemic has affected businesses because their sales have declined. She added that the business community has been affected by a lack of knowledge about financing and how to find new capital. They also have been affected by not having the right resources or education for technology management. For example, some may not know how to open an email or Facebook account to promote their business through social media.

In response to the lack of knowledge in growing a business, the Business Accessibility Toolkit (BAT) program emerged to help local enterprises to strengthen themselves to get ahead in the middle of the pandemic. BAT teaches its programs in English and Spanish, and it plans to expand to other languages. Fernandez said that the program also offers group and business training sessions.

Some businesses opened just when the state-home-order was enacted, making it very painful and devastating for them. However, other businesses are emerging in the middle of the pandemic. “They are looking for us to advise them with everything they will need to get ahead,” Fernandez said to La Raza. “I am amazed at how our Latino business community has been so resilient, has adapted, and some of them are reinventing themselves.”

COVID-19 has taught us that we always have to be prepared for difficulties, Fernandez said. “You have to look for strategies to reinvent yourself, get advice, or seek information. You always have to have an exit plan, an emergency plan.”

‘Where there is a crisis, there are opportunities’

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) created a federal financial aid package to help workers and businesses affected by the pandemic. The measure was a relief to those who applied and got it.

The CARES Act included the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), designed to help small business owners stay active and pay their employees during this period of economic uncertainty.

Local organizations and various local chambers of commerce have assisted entrepreneurs with the PPP application process. After the federal loans ran out, they offered business assistance and other services.

Jaime di Paulo, president and CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (IHCC), said that since the PPP program ran out of funds, the chamber is now providing technical and personalized assistance to businesses to survive on issues such as managing finances, reinventing and using social media to promote their businesses.

Since the start of the pandemic to today, the chamber has assisted about 8,000 companies through its business center. The goal is to try to help and save most Latino businesses in the state of Illinois, di Paulo told La Raza.

According to di Paulo, there are more than 120,000 Latino businesses in Illinois. An estimated 40 percent of them will be forced to close due to the crisis. “We are a resilient community. We fight for what we have. People are losing money and continue to keep their businesses open because of that pride we [Latinos] have; because of that desire, we have not to feel defeated as Latino entrepreneurs,” said di Paulo. He added that reinvention is critical to fighting this financial crisis.

“Where there is a crisis, there are opportunities; you just have to identify them, you have to think outside the box, you have to be creative and take risks. An entrepreneur is a person who takes risks, there are risks for everything, but you have to reinvent yourself,” said di Paulo.

In micro businesses with fewer than 20 employees, di Paulo explained, business owners can’t have a person monitoring the internet all the time; therefore, they may miss opportunities because they are too busy attending to their business and are not informed about what is happening at a larger level.

Di Paulo highlighted the importance of partnering with local chambers of commerce as they play an essential role in informing and assisting small business owners. “We can be the ears of the things that are happening so that we can inform them correctly and link them with the right programs,” he said.

Mayor Lightfoot ssaid in a statement to La Raza: “Throughout the pandemic, the City has put forward financial assistance programs that aim to reverse years of inequitable investment in our neighborhoods by prioritizing low-income and minority community areas. For example, the Chicago Small Business Resiliency Fund, the marquee loan fund created in response to COVID-19, has allotted 48 percent of its loans for businesses in low-income community areas. Additionally, the Microbusiness Recovery Grant Program distributed $5 million in grants specifically to low-income area businesses, and the Together Now Fund also prioritized businesses in these areas. We are proud of our efforts to speak our values as a city by prioritizing small business in minority neighborhoods.“

The pandemic and urban displacement

To survive in this pandemic, the government has to ensure that families can remain in their homes and should even expand financial aid programs, said Christian Diaz, director of housing for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA).

Diaz highlighted the importance of families knowing their rights and being aware that there is a moratorium on evictions in effect.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has been extending the moratorium on evictions since he issued the stay-at-home order. Now that protection is in effect until at least Nov. 14, 2020.

The difficulty that tenants face in paying their rent in known areas with more significant urban displacement, such as the Logan Square neighborhood in Northwest Chicago, is an issue that was already happening before COVID-19, affordable housing advocates say.

“Before the pandemic, we were already in crisis because, in the Hispanic community, quite a few people pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent. That already puts stress on the family because parents have to decide whether they are going to pay rent this month or if they are going to pay for food,” Diaz said in an interview with La Raza.

Studies have shown that there is a greater likelihood that in tenant households, a person has lost his or her job due to the pandemic, Diaz said. He cited the preliminary analysis ‘Examining the Neighborhood-Level Housing Impact of COVID-19 in Chicago’ (http://www.housingstudies.org/blog/Examining-the-Neighborhood-Level-Impact-of-COVID/), conducted by DePaul University and published on April 30, 2020.

This preliminary analysis explored trends and geographic patterns of workers most at risk during the first wave of massive layoffs related to COVID-19.

Of the roughly 300,000 Chicago households with a worker in an at-risk occupation, more than 183,000 or more than 60 percent are renter households, the analysis reported.

It also noted that 41 percent of tenant households and 33 percent of owner households have at least one worker who probably has been affected. Low-income renter households are incredibly hard hit, as 53.6 percent of renter households making less than $30,000 annually have a worker at risk.

“53.6 percent of tenants who earn less than $30,000 per year already have low income and are in a difficult situation. With the loss of work due to the pandemic, these families are in a more serious situation,” Diaz said.

As indicated in the analysis, nearly half of renter households with an at-risk worker already had home-affordability insecurity, meaning they were burdened with costs and paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

The pandemic has revealed the inequality between ethnicities and communities, advocates say.

“In the Hispanic community, 41 percent of households have a person who has lost income; for an Anglo-American family, it would be 20 percent. So we see that the impacts are different based on race. It is because we live in a city where inequalities have existed for a long time. Therefore inequality is felt in response to the pandemic,” Diaz said.

There is also fear and concern among landlords because they don’t know how they will pay their mortgage when tenants can’t pay the rent due to job losses.  Diaz said that there are support resources for homeowners at the state and federal level: “Look for resources because the state also offers support for those homeowners to pay their mortgages.”

Some homeowners are having a difficult time paying their mortgage in this pandemic, and in this situation, they feel the pressure to sell their property, said Diaz. “The people who can buy buildings at this time are large corporations or high-income people… For example, they may want to tear down a building, develop it into condominiums, or something more luxurious. This creates a risk that urban displacement will accelerate in this moment of crisis with the pandemic.”

In regards to the City programs in support to renters and landlords, the Office of Mayor Lightfoot described its actions:

-Two rounds of COVID-19 Housing Assistance Grants for over $37 million of financial and legal support for those impacted by shutdowns.

-COVID-19 Eviction Protection Ordinance: a provisional moratorium on evictions based upon the failure to pay rent if the tenant has suffered any loss, reduction or delay in receipt of income or employment attributable to COVID-19 (a “COVID-19 Impact”).  Under the terms of the moratorium, a landlord pursuing an eviction or other relief against a nonpaying tenant must navigate additional procedural hurdles.

-Chicago Housing Solidarity Pledge: an effort to provide relief to beleaguered tenants and building owners negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pledge affirms lenders and landlords may offer eligible renters and mortgage holders deferred payment agreements and other financial relief in response to the economic fallout of COVID-19 and continuing after the pandemic. More than a dozen -area lenders have signed the pledge.

-Fair Notice Ordinance: Under the ordinance, landlords must provide 60 days of notice before the termination of a lease intent to increase rent if the renter has lived in the unit for more than six months but less than three years; and 120 days of notice to terminate your lease for those who have lived in the unit more than 3 years.

-The Emergency Relief for Affordable Multifamily Properties (ERAMP): includes both grants and no-interest, deferred payment loans of up to $75,000 per property, based on need. The funds can cover operating shortfalls for up to three months or added expenses related to infectious disease control and preventive cleaning. The purpose of the ERAMP program is to preserve the availability of safe, clean and affordable housing options for individuals and families that may experience financial hardship resulting from COVID-19.

For Diaz, the City’s response so far during the pandemic in terms of housing has been good because they’ve placed resources to help the community, including some aid to the undocumented. But where it has failed, he indicated, is in the volume of assistance: “The City has made decisions to support the undocumented community, yet the resources it has offered are not enough.”

“The most beautiful thing I have seen during this pandemic is that new collaborative organizations have been created that support each other” in order to provide aid to the community facing essential and immediate needs amid the pandemic, Diaz added.

Affordable housing advocates urge tenants to learn about their rights and fight to keep the moratorium on Illinois’s evictions. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

COVID-19 testing and mental health

Jennifer Vargas, medical director of the Alivio Medical Center, said that her organization has carried out around 6,800 COVID-19 tests from March to the end of August of 2020.

Except for Sundays, Berwyn and Pilsen’s medical centers were opened and seeing patients all day, every day. Today, the number of tests they provide has decreased, and they only offer tests until noon.

“The tests that we can do have decreased a little… Before we were doing tests all day, every day, except Sunday in our two clinics,” Dr. Vargas said to La Raza.

According to Dr. Vargas, it’s been important to educate people more about the contagion of COVID-19. “We are trying to see which methods we can do to help people understand that they have to stay home until they have their results or stay home if they have symptoms.”

“We tell people that we are going to call them if they test positive for the virus, but they still come to know their results. Before they come to the clinic, they take the truck, go to the store, the pharmacy, and then it turns out that they are positive. After going through various places, they have infected other people,” Dr. Vargas said.

Dr. Vargas believes that the City can do much more in terms of physical and mental health during the pandemic. “The services that are now being offered are not enough, the places where free tests can be done are not enough; there is a lot we can do in the city and in the state to control this pandemic. We are doing the minimum. We have to do much more.”

Due to the high demand for mental-health treatment during the coronavirus pandemic, each therapist sees an average of 80 to 100 patients per month. Before the pandemic, they treated around 30 patients, explained Estela Melgoza, a therapist with Alivio Medical Center’s mental health department. “Since we are seeing so many patients, we don’t have the capability to see them every week. We now have to schedule the sessions every two weeks,” she said.

The center has seen an increase in patients in the mental health area due to COVID-19, Melgoza said. “We know that when a person is in the midst of a crisis, that person is more likely to be open [to seek] help because at that point, the person is looking for something that will help him or her alleviate their struggles.”

Anxiety is the biggest mental health issue during the pandemic crisis, Melgoza said. Some anxiety triggers are the fear of coronavirus, the concern that their families (those living here or in their home countries) become infected with COVID-19, their immigration status, or having to go out to work to provide for the family. “All of this causes a high level of anxiety,” Melgoza said.

In-person therapy sessions have transitioned to telehealth sessions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. According to Melgoza, virtual therapies, with video calls or telephone counseling, have facilitated and allowed patients to be monitored. “The new way we’re trying to reach people is through these virtual sessions. This is extremely important, this made us all look for alternatives to what has typically been in-person contact, and we realize that it is working and that people have been receptive,” Melgoza said.

From football fields to virtual platforms and remote education

Some soccer matches for youth groups have moved from the fields to the Zoom platform because of COVID-19. The U.N.I.O.N. Impact Center has developed incentives for children to connect and participate in the program.

“We played in person before the virus. The players competed for goals, so we had to be creative and develop something new [during the pandemic]. We started a system to reward them for the times they connected, the times the parents got involved. Some of the prizes we give out to keep them motivated are soccer balls. This helps them with their mental health, stay active at home, and have harmony and family unity,” said Rafael Yañez, executive director of U.N.I.O.N. Impact Center.

The organization focuses on community security, personal enrichment, and leadership development in the Back of the Yards community in Southwest Chicago.

During the pandemic, the organization also has helped families connect with churches to obtain food, and small businesses reach out to organizations to receive assistance for applying for grants and financial aid.

In domestic violence cases, which spiked during the confinement period, U.N.I.O.N. Impact Center also connects families with organizations to find accommodation and helps victims file police reports, and guides them through court proceedings.

Yañez, who is a Chicago policeman and a member of the Local School Council of Back of the Yards College Preparatory, said the decision to do distance learning at Chicago Public Schools was difficult and has put a lot of pressure on parents, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the local school councils.

While steps were taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus to protect the most vulnerable, officials ignored the families who must work and have no one with whom to leave their children while they do distance learning, Yañez said.

Following the start of the 2020-2021 school year remotely at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) due to COVID-19, some working parents have been seeking help with their children’s care.

However, parents complain that CPS’s monitoring locations are insufficient, and not all students qualify. CPS is offering monitoring sites for children under the age of 14.

Some parents have applied for the service but have not qualified because the priority is given to students living in low-income communities or transitional homes, depending on the school district.

Yañez believes that the City’s work facing coronavirus has been good but needs improvement. “Considering everything that’s going on, this is not something that can be perfect. I think it’s learned as it goes along. It’s a new administration [Mayor Lightfoot’s], and she has to be given the opportunity to continue to address these situations as they come to light.”

Peace begins at home

A group of young leaders in Southwest Chicago seeks to promote peace in their neighborhoods, organize their communities, develop community leaders, and combat violence. They form part of Increase The Peace, an organization with an active presence in Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Chicago Lawn, Gage Park, Little Village, and Pilsen, neighborhoods with a large Latino population.

Since the pandemic began, the group organized to distribute food to hundreds of low-income families. “This is one way we are helping people because we know that peace starts at home. One of the causes of violence is poverty and lack of resources as food,” said Berto Aguayo, executive director of Increase The Peace.

The youth group also saw the need to help street vendors, a vulnerable sector in the community hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and not receiving help.

Many of the street vendors are undocumented, so they don’t qualify for federal government stimulus money. They also don’t have access to business relief funds because many don’t have city permits. Their business relies on customers outside churches, schools, and pedestrians walking the streets. Still, when the stay-home-order was issued, these vendors ran out of clientele, and there was virtually no business for them.

To help, the youth group started a GoFundMe account. By mid-October, the group raised more than $46,000 and gave away more than 60 $500 checks to street vendors that qualified.

Besides, Increase The Peace, in partnership with the organization CALOR and Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), also offered free COVID-19 tests in the southwest Chicago community.

And then came violence and chaos. Amid the pandemic, thousands took to the streets to protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died during an arrest. However, during the manifestations, violent groups infiltrated the crowds and looted the streets of Chicago. Residents and local organizers came out in defense of their neighborhoods to avoid vandalism. “We took to the streets and peacefully defended our neighborhoods so that they would not be looted and keep the peace,” Aguayo told La Raza.

In terms of violence, what COVID-19 has done is basically “add fuel to the fire” on all the problems that already existed in our communities, Aguayo said. “If our neighborhoods had high poverty rates now we have more; if there were mental health problems now we have more; if before there were many people who didn’t have health insurance and had health problems now we have even more. That contributes directly to violence.”

When asked about his view on how the mayoral work has been in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Aguayo said he is “disappointed” by the fact that Mayor Lightfoot and the City “have prioritized downtown Chicago over our neighborhoods.”

Fighting violence and the virus

A group of Latino families at Little Village who make up a group called “Padres Angeles” (angel parents) volunteers to achieve peace and curb violence. Most of its members lost children to violence on the streets. At the beginning of the pandemic, they thought that crime and violence would decrease due to the stay-home-order. But as it turned out, it didn’t.

Doris Hernandez and Dolores Castañeda are part of the Padres Angeles group of the St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church in Little Village. They frequently attend vigils and funerals in that neighborhood.

“With masks and keeping social distancing, we have gone to many funerals during the pandemic. We thought the situation was going to be a little calm because of the virus, but it’s been the contrary. Regardless of whether or not the person was a gang member, we have lost many young people’s lives to violence and have lost the lives of people who have died from the virus,” Castañeda said.

“Many people have died in this community because they are essential workers. Unfortunately, homeless people and street vendors are also being affected, some have become infected with the virus and become ill,” said Maria Pike, a member of the Padres Angeles group.

To help fight the spread of COVID-19, these Latino mothers have made masks and donated them to the Chicago community.

Hernandez, Pike, and Carlota Lopez are some of the mothers who have voluntarily made masks for pregnant women and Chicago policemen since the beginning of the pandemic.

Hernandez said Chicago cops donated their old shirts for the masks, which were distributed to the different districts of the city. “It’s been a very meaningful effort because to make the masks; we’ve had help from other moms who lost their children to violence.”

Castañeda also participates in the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project, distributing information to street vendors. For instance, an informational poster to educate street vendors about COVID-19 prevention in Chicago’s Little Village and Lawndale neighborhoods lists these recommendations: “Stay at home if you’re sick, practice six-foot social distancing, wear masks, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and disinfect surfaces you touch frequently.”

These posters are part of an initiative by the University of Illinois School of Public Health (IUC). Known as the Greater Lawndale Healthy Work Project, the initiative seeks to improve and protect the health of workers in the Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods. Among them, street vendors who work in those neighborhoods.

Castañeda walks through the neighborhood, delivers bottles of disinfectant liquid to vendors, and pastes posters in parks, laundromats, shops, bus stops, and street vendor carts.

We cannot “normalize the pandemic” because it is not yet over, Castañeda said about people on the street that don’t wear masks or practice social distancing. “In the future, let us hope that we will already pass this pandemic, as we have already historically passed others, but as long as we are in it, we have to protect ourselves.”

Rafael Yañez, executive director of U.N.I.O.N. Impact Center, assures that due to confinement in homes, domestic violence has increased. (Courtesy)

II. The work by local authorities

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 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.

Rebeca Fernandez is a bilingual program manager for Rogers Park Business Alliance. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

III. 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 production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. La Raza appreciates its support.