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Coronavirus news for March 24, 2020

Here’s what we know today about the continuing spread of coronavirus and its ripple effects in Chicago and Illinois.

The latest

Hilton Chicago closing doors amid coronavirus pandemic

The Hilton Chicago is the latest downtown hotel to temporarily suspend its operations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Hilton Chicago is the latest downtown hotel to temporarily suspend its operations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Google Maps

The Hilton Chicago is the latest downtown hotel to temporarily suspend its operations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The hotel updated its website on Tuesday stating it was no longer accepting guests in the “near term” and would be suspending its operations.

The Hilton is one of many hotels that have had to shut their doors as coronavirus-related cancellations have caused occupancy rates to plummet.

Last week, the Park Hyatt Chicago and the Peninsula in the Loop were the first two hotels to stop taking customers, citing public health concerns relating to the pandemic.

Read the full report here.


News

9:25 p.m. NFL tells team offices to close for 2 weeks

Due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a memo Tuesday telling teams their facilities must close for at least two weeks as of 6 p.m. Wednesday. Teams can conduct normal business during that period, NFL Network reported.

Read the full report by Bears reporter Patrick Finley here.

9:00 p.m. Illinois congressional delegation asks Defense Department to help with National Guard costs

The Illinois congressional delegation asked the Defense Department on Tuesday to pick up more of the costs of calling out the Illinois National Guard as the coronavirus pandemic explodes.

The Trump administration “recently authorized” the additional help with costs “for California, New York, and Washington, but more states need help,” the Illinois delegation said in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The letter was led by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., in a rare bipartisan effort. The five GOP House members joined the 13 Democrats Illinois sends to the House plus the two senators, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

Read the full story by reporter Lynn Sweet here.

8:28 p.m. Frustration mounts as state scrambles to keep up with jobless benefits claims

Another day meant dollars lost for thousands of Illinoisans left jobless as the state economy grinds to a halt in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

And with a flood of residents racing to file claims for unemployment insurance, state employees were still scrambling to accommodate the surge.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has urged the “unprecedented” number of people submitting claims to do so on the Illinois Department of Employment Security website, but many were still hitting a wall Tuesday as the site appeared to crash for several hours and many users complained of glitches throughout the day.

Read the full report by reporter Mitch Armentrout here.

7:27 p.m. Nearly a dozen Chicago first responders infected with coronavirus, but all recovering and ‘in great spirits’

The total number of Chicago first responders who have tested positive for COVID-19 rose to 11 on Tuesday, as a mix of Chicago Police detectives, patrol officers, firefighters and paramedics became sickened by the coronavirus.

Six of the cases are in the Chicago Police Department, and five in the Chicago Fire Department, leaders of the two departments said.

Two of the Chicago Police employees are recovering from the coronavirus in hospitals, Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck said. In addition to detectives and patrol officers, the department’s cases include a community relations employee.

“I talked to every one of them personally, and they’re all in great spirits,” Beck said. “They’re tremendous, brave people who want to get through this and get back to work.”

Read the full report from reporter Jake Wittich here.

6:32 p.m. With isolation, abuse activists fear an ‘explosive cocktail’

As the world’s families hunker down, there’s another danger, less obvious but just as insidious, that worries advocates and officials: a potential spike in domestic violence as victims spend day and night trapped at home with their abusers, with tensions rising, nowhere to escape, limited or no access to friends or relatives — and no idea when it will end.

Before many city and statewide lockdowns, organizations like the nonprofit Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles have started to prepare online counseling sessions, and reaching out to clients to suggest ways to keep in contact — perhaps phone calls to counselors from a bathroom or during a walk, if an abuser is in the home.

Because of virus measures, advocates “can’t show up at the police station now. We can’t show up at the hospital,” Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, said. She also said the shelters are working on plans to limit the proximity of people, in order to maintain social distancing, she said.

Such conditions are also an issue in Illinois, where shelters, already at capacity, were moving beds further apart to follow CDC guidelines.

”One of the key challenges of this health pandemic is that home isn’t a safe place for everyone,” said Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, based in Chicago. “Victims and the abusers have to stay at the scene of the crime.”

Read the full story here.

6:02 p.m. Despite Lightfoot’s go-easy pledge, motorists still getting parking tickets for non-safety violations

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Chicago would stop ticketing, booting and towing illegally parked vehicles except for public safety reasons through April 30 to give some measure of relief to people whose jobs and paychecks have been impacted by the coronavirus.

Why, then, is the city to continuing to ticket cars parked nowhere near fire hydrants or building entrances with absolutely no impact on public safety?

“Ticketing is continuing, but the emphasis is supposed to be limited to public safety reasons,” Lightfoot said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

“It’s not free parking all over the city. I want to be clear about that. But what we said is, place the emphasis on cars or motorists who cause a public safety hazard.”

Lightfoot said there is an obvious need to “continue to be in conversation” with Chicago Parking Meters LLC about “where the emphasis should be placed” to comply with her March 18 edict.

That’s the investment group that famously paid the city $1.15 billion over 75 years to lease the city’s 36,000 parking meters in exchange for the right to pocket meter revenues and be reimbursed by the city for meters taken out of service. It’s the parking meter deal that Chicagoans love to hate.

Read the full report from reporter Fran Spielman here.

5:28 p.m. More funeral homes livestream services as they face guest limits and travel restrictions because of coronavirus

Because of the coronavirus, a handful of people attended the funeral for Sam Melamed. But a lot more people had the comfort of feeling like they were there.

There’ve been more than 1700 views of a Facebook livestream of his graveside service Monday at Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie.

For mourners who couldn’t be present, it was a real-time, virtual front-row seat. They could see the red roses atop his casket and hear the birds and traffic on Gross Point Road.

Mr. Melamed, a hotelier, died last Thursday in Rockford, where he’d moved to be closer to his son, Harvey. He was 94.

His daughter, Susan Rentschler, watched his funeral from California. His siblings, Bessie Bernard, Diana Burn and Harry Melamed, were in virtual attendance from Florida. Other relatives viewed it from his hometown of Montreal.

“They all were able to watch the stream and feel included,” said his son, Earl, who was present. “I thought it was really a wonderful thing. . . we were thrilled.”

Read the full story from obituary reporter Maureen O’Donnell.

4:32 p.m. Lightfoot: Not the time to lift stay-at-home order, despite what Trump says about getting economy moving

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this is not the time to lift the stay-at-home order — no matter how strongly President Donald Trump feels about the need to get the economy moving — and the decision will be made at the local level.

Lightfoot noted the CDC gives state and local officials “guidance” about what to do. They don’t issue mandates. Neither has the federal government.

“So when and how conditions on the ground in Chicago and across the state happen is gonna be dependent upon us — not him,” the mayor said.

In Chicago and “in most areas” across the nation, there remains an “upward trajectory in the number of confirmed cases” of the coronavirus that, Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said, is likely to continue for some time.

“Pulling that [stay at home order] now, in my view for Chicago, does not make sense at all,” Lightfoot said.

City Hall reporter Fran Spielman has more from Lightfoot’s press conference call. Read her full report here.

3:48 p.m. Midway control tower reopens after COVID-19 exposure

The air traffic control tower at Midway Airport reopened Tuesday, a week after it closed for cleaning due to a COVID-19 exposure that disrupted flights in and out of the airport.

Several employees in the tower tested positive for the virus March 17, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

When the tower closed, flights operated on a “one-in-one-out” basis, prompting Southwest Airlines to suspend all of its flights at the airport. Flights were controlled from a remote facility.

“Every air traffic control facility in the country has a contingency plan to keep air traffic moving safely when events impede normal operations,” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said in an emailed statement. “In some cases, this means transferring duties to adjacent facilities.”

Read the full story from reporter David Struett.

3 p.m. Liquor delivery apps doing brisk business amid the coronavirus pandemic

After the shelter-in-place order was instituted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week due to the coronavirus pandemic, some liquor stores, delivery apps and distilleries continue to see an increase in sales, while of some of them have seen their sales head in the other direction.

Binny’s Beverage Depot, which continues to take delivery orders online, is also making deliveries through food delivery app Instacart. They have cut brick-and-mortar hours and are letting a controlled number of customers into their stores.

The Illinois Liquor Control Commission has issued temporary permits to craft breweries so they can conduct residential deliveries.

Read the full story from reporter Evan F. Moore.

2:45 p.m. Illinois coronavirus deaths up to 16, cases up to 1,535

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday outlined the state’s hospital capacity to deal with some of the most serious cases of coronavirus, while officials announced another four people have died from COVID-19 in Illinois.

The Democratic governor said he doesn’t know how long the coronavirus will affect the lives of Illinois residents, and he warned that although the virus has mostly affected Cook County residents, “it is coming to every county.”

An additional 250 cases have been added to the state’s total, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health said, bringing the number of cases in the state to 1,535 cases in 32 counties in Illinois. The ages have ranged from an infant to 99 years.

Read the full story from reporter Tina Sfondeles.

2:19 p.m. Nurse says Northwestern Memorial fired her over wanting better face masks

A nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who wore a more protective face mask than the one issued to her by the hospital — and warned coworkers to do the same — said Tuesday she suspects she was fired because such a warning could spur protests or even walkouts by nurses who didn’t have the same level of protection.

Lauri Mazurkiewicz — who filed suit against the hospital Monday — wore an N95 face mask she bought herself to work this month at the hospital. On March 18 she emailed about 50 coworkers suggesting they, too, wear the extra-protective mask in place of the standard hospital-issued surgical masks her and her colleagues had been instructed to wear.

The very next day, Mazurkiewicz learned she’d been fired when she received a call from the nursing staffing agency that placed her at the hospital.

“I had a box of my own,” she said of the N95 masks, noting her concern about airborne transmission of the virus and the additional protection the masks offer.

Read the full story from reporter Mitch Dudek.

1:36 p.m. Consumers’ credit also needs protection from COVID-19, consumer group says

Amid the wrangling in Congress over what to do to halt the spread of the coronavirus and assist struggling businesses, a coalition of consumer groups wants to make sure ordinary people don’t see their credit destroyed by the financial upheaval.

The Consumer Federation of America, which includes more than 250 organizations, is calling for consumer-friendly measures including:

  • Suspension of debt collections, including legal proceedings, wage garnishments, repossessions and selling of debt.
  • A moratorium on negative credit reporting for at least four months, so out-of-work consumers who can’t pay their bills on time won’t see their credit destroyed.
  • Forbearance of 180 days for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.
  • A nationwide, 180-day halt to evictions of tenants suffering economic hardship and support for landlords who are losing income. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was an early adopter, announcing March 14 that he would halt court-ordered evictions during the crisis.

Read the full story from reporter Stephanie Zimmermann.

12:42 p.m. CPS school warns families of confirmed COVID-19 case

A COVID-19 case has been confirmed at Andrew Jackson Language Academy on the Near West Side, marking the fourth publicly known case at a Chicago public school.

Schools officials told families in a letter Monday night that someone at the school tested positive, but that they “behaved cautiously and did not have direct contact with any member of the Jackson community when they became symptomatic.”

The letter did not say whether the person who tested positive was a student, staff member or parent. A Chicago Public Schools spokesman did not respond to a question asking if the patient was a child or adult.

The new case came the same day as another letter from CPS to all district families that school communities would continue to be notified through March 31 if someone in their school tested positive. CPS said notifications won’t be necessary after that date, since it will be 14 days since schools closed and there will no longer be a risk that transmission occurred while classes were in session.

Nader Issa

12 p.m. Jewel-Osco to install sneeze guards at registers, service desks

Jewel-Osco is adding plexiglass sneeze guards at its registers, service desks and pharmacy stands to protect employees and customers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The grocery chain is also putting tape on floors to help people keep a proper distance from other shoppers, particularly near fresh departments and checkout lanes.

“We recognize that we provide an essential service to our communities and we are doing everything we can to provide a safe, secure and comfortable shopping space for our valued customers and our associates,” Jewel-Osco President Mike Withers said in a news release.

Jewel-Osco is part of Albertsons Cos., which operates stores in 34 states and Washington, D.C. Supermarket News reported Albertsons plans to install the sneeze guards at its over 2,200 stores in the next two weeks.

— Bill Ruminski

11:47 a.m. Illinois ed board moves to cancel standardized testing statewide

Illinois education officials have applied for a federal waiver to cancel all standardized testing in the state and suspend school ratings and assessments.

The request comes days after U.S. Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos said the Dept. of Education would approve any state applications for waivers as coronavirus-related closures upend school years across the country.

The Illinois State Board of Education said that, if its application is approved, any school that was identified last year as struggling and in need of extra support would continue to receive that support next year.

Chicago Public Schools has already canceled its own district-mandated standardized testing, including the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) MAP test, which is used for entry to the district’s selective-enrollment high schools and elementary school academic centers.

Nader Issa

10:38 a.m. Lightfoot, suburban mayors raise red flags about releasing jail detainees over COVID-19

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a coalition of suburban mayors penned a letter to Chief Criminal Court Judge Leroy Martin Monday in response to his decision to review of thousands of criminal cases with a goal of reducing the number of inmates in jail in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s order came the day after the Cook County Sheriff’s Department announced that a correctional officer who worked in the jail’s Cermak medical facility tested positive for COVID-19.

In the letter dated Monday, Lightfoot asked the judge to “consider implementing certain protocols to ensure that detainees residing in a facility where a known case has been detected are asymptomatic for a reasonable time prior to release in order to safeguard them and the public.“

The letter was co-signed by mayors from Hillside, Morton Grove, Riverside, Palos Hills and Robbins.

Click here to read the full story.

9:48 a.m. Coronavirus, colds, allergies, strep or flu? Here’s how to tell the difference

It’s allergy season and we haven’t exactly cleared flu season yet, but that hasn’t stopped the new coronavirus from spreading throughout the nation and creating a new normal for Americans who are now stuck at home.

Symptoms of the coronavirus include a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, but those symptoms closely resemble other illnesses, as well. So, how do you know if you have coronavirus or something else?

Dr. Maria Granzotti, chief medical officer at Ascension Texas, breaks down the differences between allergies, cold, strep, flu and COVID-19 to put your mind more at ease before going to the doctor.

Read the full story here. Our essential COVID-19 content is free for all suntimes.com visitors.

8:48 a.m. How to apply for unemployment benefits if you are out of work during Illinois’ COVID-19 shutdown

Tens of thousands of workers across Illinois have been temporarily out of work since the outbreak began forcing businesses to close. Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants to stop serving dine-in customers, and on Saturday, he issued a stay-at-home order leaving just “essential” businesses in operation.

The result is countless people are now out of work and being forced into the state’s unemployment system. Illinois alone saw more than 64,000 new claims for unemployment benefits from March 16-18.

To handle this massive influx of new applications, IDES announced it recently adopted emergency rules for who qualifies for unemployment insurance.

The amount residents can receive depends on their usual pay rate with benefits ranging from $51 to $580 per week. Those approved can receive up to 26 weeks of benefits in a 12-month period.

Read our comprehensive guide to applying for and receiving unemployment insurance.

8:08 a.m. Tokyo Olympics officially postponed to 2021

The Tokyo Olympics have been officially postponed until 2021.

The International Olympic Committee along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and local organizers have decided that the Tokyo Games cannot go ahead as scheduled this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The IOC says the games will be held “not later than summer 2021” but they will still be called the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Read the full story here.

7:55 a.m. US, Europe account for 85% of new COVID-19 infections, deaths

Spain started storing bodies in an ice rink converted to a makeshift morgue Tuesday, as coronavirus deaths mounted there and around the world, with the World Health Organization warning the pandemic was still in a nascent stage with infections expected to increase “considerably.”

Some 85% of new infections came from Europe and the United States, according to the WHO, with Spain registering a record daily increase of 6,584 new infections and a leap of 500 in the death toll to 2,696.

More than 387,000 people worldwide have been infected by the new coronavirus and more than 16,700 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Click here to read the full story.

5:10 a.m. Rebates on CTA passes, subsidies for Pace and Divvy rides offered to help residents cope with coronavirus crisis

Chicago-area transit agencies are taking steps to help commuters through the COVID-19 crisis.

Through at least April 7, Ventra riders will receive prorated credit for unused passes.

There also will be free bus rides on Pace for some customers, and prices of Divvy bike passes will be reduced significantly, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

Read the full story here.


New cases


Analysis & Commentary

7:33 p.m. Saving the economy is secondary to saving lives during a pandemic

You have to wonder what on Earth the president is thinking when he says he wants the country’s economy “opened up and just raring to go” despite a raging pandemic.

Donald Trump said precisely that on the same day that the World Health Organization warned that the United States is on the brink of becoming the global epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak because of the “very large acceleration” of infections here.

Yet there was the president, hours later, demanding that the nation’s economy be opened up for business by Easter, less than three weeks away.

“I gave it two weeks,” Trump said at a town hall hosted by Fox News. “We can socially distance ourselves and go to work.”

Not only is that nonsense, it’s life threatening.

Read the full editorial here.

6:33 p.m. Saving the economy is secondary to saving lives during a pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many issues state lawmakers are facing to the back burner. The price of electricity shouldn’t be one of them.

That’s why we’re sounding this alarm that power bills for northern Illinois ratepayers will shoot up soon if the Legislature doesn’t act.

Last week, a company named PJM, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia, filed a so-called compliance plan under a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order. The plan would have devastating consequences for Illinois consumers.

If nothing is done, power bills will soar for ratepayers, job opportunities will be lost and the environment will suffer enormous harm.

The Legislature can prevent that, though, by enacting legislation along the lines of the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act. But it has to get the job done before the end of the current legislative session, and this is a complicated bill that has a lot of working parts.

Read the full editorial here.

5:58 p.m. ‘It hurts’ — Food pantries shut down, shelters try to cope amid coronavirus crisis

Organizations that provide food to the poorest Illinoisans are shutting down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Other social service agencies, like homeless shelters, also must adjust.

In the past two weeks, 112 Chicago-area food pantries have closed; 82 in Cook County — almost a quarter of the 370 food pantries belonging to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“The number is shocking,” said Greg Trotter, spokesman for depository. “It hurts and it has an impact.”

In the 13 collar counties, another 30 food pantries closed in the past week, according to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, mostly because those who run them don’t want to risk exposure to COVID-19.

“Our pantries largely rely upon the help from volunteers, and a lot of our volunteers tend to be older folks, seniors who have time to spare,” said Liz Gartman, communications manager for the food bank. ”Many of those same folks are taking health precautions very seriously, as they should, so they don’t feel comfortable coming in.”

The pantries that remain are scrambling to fill the gaps.

Neil Steinberg has more in his latest column. Read it here.

1:46 p.m. FACT CHECK: Postponing primary not in Pritzker’s power

Gov. Pritzker said it was “unquestionably” not within his “legal authority” to postpone Illinois’ primary election by changing the date or shifting the election to vote-by-mail.

While there are too many hypotheticals to be certain Pritzker’s administration could not have delayed the election in any way, experts told us the governor spoke correctly in describing the limits of his powers under state law.

We rate his claim Mostly True.

Read the complete fact-checking analysis here.

5:00 a.m. Distillery retools in coronavirus crisis to make desperately needed hand sanitizers

To address the emergency need for hand sanitizers, on March 18, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — the agency regulating distilled spirits makers — issued an emergency order allowing companies already holding permits to “immediately” start producing hand sanitizers through June 30. “These measures are generally authorized ... in disaster situations,” the agency said.

Eric Falberg stirring mash at 28 Mile Distillery., Monday, March 23, 2020, in Highwood Ill. This batch of mash is a combination of corn and barley and will be used to distill alcohol for hand sanitizer. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Eric Falberg stirring mash at 28 Mile Distillery., Monday, March 23, 2020, in Highwood Ill. This batch of mash is a combination of corn and barley and will be used to distill alcohol for hand sanitizer. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The only condition was the manufacturers had to follow the recipe provided by the World Health Organization: Hand sanitizers had to be made of specific amounts of denatured or undenatured ethanol, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide.

So Eric Falberg, co-owner of the 28 Mile Distilling Co. in Highwood, and his partners, his brother Gregg and Matt Greif, the head distiller, decided to jump into the hand sanitizer business. And so the 28 Mile Hand Sanitizer was born, financed with about $50,000 from the partners.

Read the full story from the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet.

9:32 p.m. Feds vow to send Illinois ventilators, masks after Pritzker and Trump talk things through

After a string of national TV appearances in which Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker criticized President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and a couple of Twitter tirades — the White House on Monday has vowed to send Illinois 300 ventilators and 250,000 masks.

According to the governor’s office, that assurance came from a White House aide on Monday afternoon after Pritzker and Trump spoke directly on the phone at about noon. It also came some 24 hours after Pritzker complained “the only way to get the president of the United States to pay attention is to go on national television and make noise about it.”

Pritzker’s office said Illinois is expected to get 300 ventilators and 250,000 N95 masks.

Read the full story from reporter Tina Sfondeles.

7:01 p.m. Illinois should move state tax filing deadline to July 15 so it matches the feds’

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that the federal government will move the tax deadline to July 15 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That puts the ball in Illinois’ court to find a way to do the same.

We urge the state to move quickly to resolve this. It’s clearly doable.

We get that the sudden loss of the usual influx of cash in April can leave the state scratching its head about how to pay its bills, including the paychecks for state workers.

But we hope the Pritzker administration is also fully taking into account that no matter what the state decides, the distinction between federal and state filing dates will be lost on many tax filers.

Read the full editorial here.

6:33 p.m. Adding insult to isolation? No shame in being dubbed a ‘non-essential’ worker

Most everyone would probably like to believe they are essential in at least some small way or another to the endeavors to which they devote themselves — and therefore essential to the larger society.

With that in mind, I asked my Facebook friends if their jobs have been deemed essential or non-essential — and how they are feeling about that.

Many of them reminded me that even though they are “non-essential,” they are working at home and happy to be doing so.

And many of those with “essential jobs” are of a mixed mind about it, glad to be working and continuing to make a contribution but concerned about their personal safety.

Read Mark Brown’s full column here.