As the weather turned sunny, and uncommonly warm, in late March, Chicagoans flocked to the eighteen-mile-long public path along Lake Michigan, cycling, running, walking, rollerblading, chatting, laughing—and ignoring the stay-at-home order that Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker had been issued a few days earlier. Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s mayor, was not amused. On March 26th, she tweeted, “This is not a vacation. While most of our residents understand this, some have refused to listen. So for the good of the city, we are immediately closing high-traffic areas of the city until further notice.”
With Illinois racing toward an anticipated COVID-19 peak in mid-April, Lightfoot and Pritzker, political neophytes who took office in 2019, have been setting the policy and the tone for the nation’s third-largest city and its sixth-largest state. More than two hundred people have died from the virus in Illinois, and Pritzker has extended his stay-at-home order for the state’s nearly thirteen million residents to April 30th. Despite their pleas to the Trump Administration, starting two months ago, federal support has been minimal, unpredictable, and deeply disappointing, as they explained in interviews this week. Saying that he was speaking for governors around the country, Pritzker told me, “We’re finding ways to work around the federal government, which just shouldn’t be something coming out of the mouth of a governor, but that’s absolutely the case.”
Pritzker deduced early that Illinois could not turn to the Trump Administration for help. “They’ve made a lot of promises,” he said. “At first, I would rely on those promises, because I think you should be able to rely upon the federal government and the White House when they tell you something. But, over time, I got frustrated. They weren’t delivering.” After he spoke with Trump, on March 23rd, the Administration promised to send the state three hundred ventilators and three hundred thousand N95 respirator masks. The following week, when the material arrived, Pritzker’s staff discovered that the shipment did not include the N95 masks, which are used by doctors and other medical workers in high-risk situations. Instead, it contained far less protective surgical masks. “I can’t emphasize enough how much we need the federal government to step up and amplify the size of their P.P.E. deliveries to Illinois and, frankly, across the nation,” Pritzker said on March 30th, using the acronym for personal protective equipment.
The federal response, has been “woefully inadequate. They’re not the cavalry,” Lightfoot told me. She convenes an hour-long conference call each Sunday night with as many as three hundred mayors and local officials in the Chicago region, and she keeps in contact with big-city mayors elsewhere. “What I’m hearing from mayors across the country is this little bit of the allocation that they’re getting is essentially worthless. It’s product that is expired and, worse, that is really in poor condition and disintegrating.” In late March, for example, the federal government sent a hundred and seventy ventilators from a national stockpile, maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services, to Los Angeles; Mayor Eric Garcetti reported that they were not working when they arrived.
Despite a continuing shortage of testing, Lightfoot said that a combination of public and private institutions have been able to meet many of Chicago’s most urgent needs. She worries more about other places “that don’t have the kind of resources that we have here.” The city has signed contracts for twenty-six hundred hotel rooms where patients can be housed, including some who are recovering but not yet able to return home. In one sign of federal coöperation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is rapidly converting Chicago’s massive McCormick Place convention center into a field hospital, designed for patients who need limited treatment or isolation. To help with electronic learning in Chicago’s public schools—the nation’s third-largest public-education system, with nearly three hundred thousand students—city authorities will distribute more than a hundred thousand computers or tablets. Packets containing educational-enrichment activities and projects are being delivered to food-distribution sites. Police and jailers are reducing prison populations, as the number of inmates testing positive is rising.
To get residents to “stay home, save lives,” as she put it in a series of video sketches, Lightfoot sometimes uses humor. One social-media post shows her playing guitar and singing badly, rooting for the White Sox, telling a friend to skip a pedicure, fluffing pillows, and writing “Stay Home!” in flour. She has been delighted by a series of widely shared memes, lighthearted and supportive, that depict her sternly presiding over the stay-at-home order. In one image, her face replaces Batman’s in a spotlight projected into the night sky.
On Saturday, March 28th, I drove the eighteen-mile length of the Lakeshore Trail to see whether Chicagoans were following Lightfoot’s orders to stay away from the city’s most popular outdoor spaces. I saw rolls of yellow crime-scene tape and blue police barricades, and not a single biker, runner, or walker east of Lake Shore Drive. Millennium Park, home to the mirror-like “Cloud Gate” sculpture, was fenced off. “Millennium Park is closed to the public until further notice,” signs read. “Please maintain social distancing, avoid gathering in groups and practice frequent handwashing.” On the normally crowded Michigan Avenue, electric signs flashed, “Alone together. Stay home if you can,” and “¡Lavate las manos!” A bus on the C..A.’s 147 route advertised a now-shuttered Second City comedy revue, “Do You Believe in Madness?” The only person aboard was the driver.
The challenges remain greatest for countless low-income Chicagoans who live in neighborhoods where stores are few and public transportation is limited. “We’re seeing a lot of people losing their employment and needing assistance with food,” Ana Quijano, a coördinator in South Chicago for the nonprofit Claretian Associates, which has been delivering free canned goods and gift cards to some of the dozens of families and elderly residents who live in Claretian’s housing, said. The prospects are only growing more daunting, with the extension of the statewide shelter-in-place order. “Access to food—and nutritious food—is a big, big barrier for many individuals,” Bob Gallo, who directs the Illinois office of A.A.R.P., said. “What do you do if you’re home and you need to go to the drugstore? How do you get there if you’re afraid?” In late March, Lightfoot held a telephone town hall with A.A.R.P.’s Illinois chapter. More than twenty thousand people took the call or listened live on Facebook.
Long before Lightfoot became a meme, she wrote a letter to President Trump, asking that the White House base its decisions regarding the coronavirus on “the best available science” and coördinate with the country’s mayors. The date was February 6th, one day after the Senate voted to acquit the President on two articles of impeachment. At that point, there were twelve confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. In her letter, Lightfoot said she appreciated that federal agencies were “devoting their best people and resources,” and that they were facing a “rapidly evolving situation.” But she took issue with the White House proclamation, issued on January 31st, that barred entry into the country to some foreign travellers who had been in China during the previous fourteen days. While Trump claimed that he “closed our Country to China,” the order was full of exceptions, allowing the entry, for example, of “any alien whose entry would not pose a significant risk of introducing, transmitting, or spreading the virus.” It was unclear how screeners would know who posed a significant risk or how the screening would be accomplished; last year, U.S. airports welcomed an average of fourteen thousand passengers a day from China. The order also called for the quarantine, “where appropriate,” of arriving passengers “who may have been exposed to the virus.” It did not offer any guidance about how to create the quarantines, who would run them, or who would pay.
With the complex decree set to take effect just forty-eight hours after it was issued, Lightfoot and her staff scrambled to make sense of it. She convened a weekend phone call with the mayors of several cities with airports that would be expected to cope with fallout. “What became clear was we weren’t getting straight answers,” Lightfoot said, referring to the Trump Administration. “You could talk to the same person and you’d get a different answer, depending on what city you were in. It was a mess. That told me, right then and there, that we were going to be in this for ourselves, meaning cities and states were not going to be able to rely upon the federal government.”