Lightfoot to suspend ‘non-essential’ city services; cancels City Council meeting, limits City Hall access
The council was to deal with COVID-19 matters, such as granting impacted employees two weeks of paid sick time and allowing them to work from home. Now, she will make those changes using what she calls “emergency actions.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot will suspend some “non-essential” government services and also has canceled Wednesday’s City Council meeting as Chicago continues to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus.
The cancellation of the council meeting was an abrupt about-face for Lightfoot, who had just Monday said it would go on. In announcing her decision, she cited fears it could attract a large crowd that could trigger community spread of the coronavirus.
Her decision on city services was announced during a conference call with reporters that is likely to replace in-person news conferences until the pandemic subsides.
The mayor said the services being suspended would be “non-essential government services that cannot be performed from home” by city employees.
“We will be rolling out specifics on that in the next day or so. We’re working with city departments to finalize those lists of non-essential government services and the specific employees that will be affected,” the mayor said.
“Public safety — including the Police Department, the Fire Department, OEMC — will continue to operate at full-staffing levels. And critical services — including sanitation, water and airport operations — will also remain fully-staffed and operational.”
The mayor was asked what would happen to those city employees deemed “non-essential” whose jobs cannot be performed via tele-work.
“They will be at home and they will be paid and continue to receive their normal benefits, including health care,” Lightfoot said.
“Some of them will be tele-working and providing support from a distance. I wouldn’t say they were getting paid to stay at home and do nothing. That’s not what this is intended to do.”
The mayor also reiterated she is working on a “local package” to support small businesses and hourly workers that she hopes to roll out in the next few days.
She also plans to execute the policy she outlined last week enabling employees authorized by their department heads to work from home for up to two weeks.
“It’s important to emphasize that all employees — whether they’re working outside or working from home or if their function is suspended — will be paid and will continue to receive their normal benefits, including health care,” the mayor said.
On Monday, Lightfoot had insisted the Council would meet in an abbreviated session to approve grant money tied to the city’s response to the pandemic and revise city work rules to grant impacted employees two weeks of paid sick time and allow them to work from home.
But the mayor stressed the situation was “fluid” and subject to change. Shortly after that, Gov. J.B. Pritzker limited crowd sizes in the state to under 50, impacting gyms, bowling alleys, private clubs and movie theaters.
The Trump administration urged Americans to avoid meeting in groups larger than 10 people.
On Tuesday, the mayor adapted to the ever-changing landscape. She pulled the plug on Wednesday’s meeting and said it would be re-scheduled at a “later date.”
Citing “new flexibility in government meetings without in-person attendance” provided by the governor, Lightfoot said she would work with aldermen to “determine the most efficient manner to proceed on policymaking to ensure continuity of city services in the coming weeks and months.”
“During these unprecedented times, we cannot proceed with business as usual when the health and welfare of our residents and communities are at risk,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.
“After consulting with public health officials and colleagues in the City Council, we made the difficult decision to postpone our March meeting for several weeks while the City develops a procedure for the Council to meet electronically pursuant to the Governor’s executive action. I am fully committed to working with our City Council to develop a plan for proceeding on key legislation and approvals that our communities are counting on while we combat COVID-19. These are trying times, but we are all in this together.”
The release also warned the mayor would take “several emergency executive actions over the next few days to allow for the continuance of government” before the next City Council meeting.
That includes expanding procurement authority, ensuring employees are paid while on extended leave, and allowing the city to appropriate money from the federal government to pay for costs incurred in Chicago’s unprecedented response to the pandemic.
In addition, the city will “begin to reduce access to City Hall,” the nerve center of city government, to “personnel only” for the “coming weeks.
The city side of the building at 121 N. LaSalle that is shared with county government will be “closed to the public on floors that do not provide public services.”
That’s another change that Lightfoot had steadfastly resisted — until now.
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), the mayor’s handpicked Education Committee chairman, was relieved. He was planning to “wear gloves to Council on Wednesday, just to make sure I was protecting myself and not giving anything to my colleagues.”
Scott called the cancellation the “right thing to do” considering the public health risk and the governor’s ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people.
“We break that, just with the aldermen and the mayor’s staff,” Scott said.
Arguing that, “government can’t stop,” Scott said, “We have to figure out ways to continue to move the city forward how we can. I’ve heard they’re looking into video conferencing and conference calls.”
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said Lightfoot was reluctant to call off Wednesday’s meeting because, “There was some business we were trying to get conducted around the coronavirus and grant funding from Washington” to bankroll the city’s emergency response.
“We’ll just have to wait until the next City Council meeting. It should occur in April. The only question will be how it’s conducted. Could we use video conferencing or Skype?” Villegas said.
“There’s a lot more technology I’d like to see utilized in the Council. Public participation could be done by Skype as well — particularly because it’s public comment and not question and answer. There could also be written testimony read into the record.”