Cars take on new importance, functions during pandemic

When every reason for leaving your home is scrutinized, the act of getting in your car to simply convey an idea — love, appreciation, disapproval — became a passionate and weighty gesture in 2020.

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A relative of Jean Smith takes part in a car parade past the Hyde Park native’s home on her 99th birthday earlier this year.

A relative of Jean Smith takes part in a car parade past the Hyde Park native’s home on her 99th birthday earlier this year.

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Cars.

Lines of them, decorated, drivers honking, people hanging out of them waving, screaming, singing, fist-pumping.

The scene has played out thousands of times, for myriad reasons, as vehicles became an all-important conduit during the pandemic for showing you care about something deeply.

Jean Smith can attest.

Family and friends formed a caravan and rolled by her Hyde Park apartment building in April to celebrate Smith’s 99th birthday.

Jean Smith was thrilled when friends and relatives formed a car caravan and drove by her Hyde Park apartment to celebrate her 99th birthday in April.

Jean Smith was thrilled when friends and relatives formed a car caravan and drove by her Hyde Park apartment to celebrate her 99th birthday in April.

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“It made me feel like I was on cloud nine, or cloud 99,” she said with a laugh. “To get to be 99 and have that many people interested in you? Most of the time they just throw you by the wayside, but I felt like I was Queen Elizabeth. I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Smith.

“Now I’m just waiting for the 100th,” she said, hoping for a face-to-face bash.

In a nod to the city’s crackdown on large gatherings, she added with a chuckle: “I can’t go underground and have a party because somebody will find it out.”

Birthdays, graduations, rallies, protests, funerals — thanks to COVID-19, cars played a bigger part in them all. And of course events handing out coronavirus essentials — like face masks and hand sanitizer — often were drive-thru.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia helped hand out masks and hand sanitizer at a drive-thru event in Little Village in May.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia helped hand out masks and hand sanitizer at a drive-thru event in Little Village in May.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In the year of the census, those working on the tally often used car caravans to spread the word to fill out the form, often focusing on neighborhoods or communities that have been traditionally undercounted.

On a single day in June, caravans were held in Joliet, Berwyn and five Chicago neighborhoods, as residents decorated their cars with 2020 census slogans, carried signs and honked their horns during the parade.

One of the vehicles that joined a caravan driving through Little Village in June to remind people to fill out the 2020 Census.

One of the vehicles that joined a caravan driving through Little Village in June to remind people to fill out the 2020 Census.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union also embraced car caravans for their protests as they fought for a safe plan to reopen schools.

“Social movement depends on unifying people and creating a strong sense of community and connectedness. Cars become a way to do that,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “You can try to create a sense of connection, like we would have at a march, but without the risk.”

Ushers cheer and dance for graduates during a drive-thru graduation for Whitney Young Magnet High School students in June.

Ushers cheer and dance for graduates during a drive-thru graduation for Whitney Young Magnet High School students in June. Graduates were still able to walk a across a stage — socially distanced — and greet their principal, who stood on stage behind a plastic shield.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Other educators used cars in other ways.

Jason Patera, head of school atChicago Academy for the Arts, a private high school in River West, gathered a posse of staff to drive diplomas to the homes of graduating seniors. Over two days, Patera logged 400 miles in his Honda Civic, because students come to the school from all over the tri-state area.

“The kids didn’t know we were coming,” Patera said. “We had streamers and balloons. There were tears. Kids yelling ‘No way! Oh my God! No way!”

In the spring, people living in a retirement home in Morgan Park — many of whom hadn’t been outside or received visitors for some time —were glad to see a line of cars, filled with relatives and other well-wishers who wanted to show some love.

“We thought we might get 30 cars. We had close to 100,” saidMary Jo Viero, executive director of theBeverly Area Planning Association, which organized the caravan that brought joy to folksat Smith Village Senior Living Community.

“It just made everyone happy.”

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