City Council rushes to the rescue of businesses, employees crippled by COVID-19

A parade of relief ordinances were slated for approval at Wednesday’s virtual meeting.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot toured a new coronavirus drive-thru testing site at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave.,  earlier this week. The site and several others in Chicago are being organized by the CORE disaster relief organization started by actor Sean Penn.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot toured a new coronavirus drive-thru testing site at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave., earlier this week. The site and several others in Chicago are being organized by the CORE disaster relief organization started by actor Sean Penn.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday rushed to the rescue of businesses and individuals whose everyday lives and livelihoods have been crippled by the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus.

At a virtual meeting that was downright tame, compared to the last foul-mouthed free-for-all, aldermen approved a parade of relief ordinances targeting:

O’Hare and Midway Airport concessionaires that have shut down entirely or seen their revenues plummet because of the travel slowdown. They would all be in line for a two-month waiver of rent and fees, followed by base rent only during the month of June with the “minimum annual guarantee deferred.” It would need to be paid back at no interest, only when business recovers to the point where the concessionaire hits a level of sales that is 75% of what it did in 2019, before the coronavirus.

Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee has portrayed the relief package as “more generous” than any offered by other major airports because repayment of the deferred rent could be extended for as long as three years.

  • Workers in danger of being fired, suspended, transferred or having their pay cut because of absences tied to the coronavirus.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s anti-retaliation ordinance applies to workers who stay home because they have COVID-19 symptoms, have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus, or their business is deemed nonessential by statewide stay-at-home order.

Already, City Hall has received 32 complaints of retaliation against workers who stayed home during the pandemic.

  • Businesses struggling to adjust to a landmark ordinance requiring large Chicago employers to give their employees at least two weeks’ notice of their schedule and compensate them for last-minute changes.

Lightfoot’s watered-down ordinance postpones until Jan. 1 the “private cause of action” section that allows aggrieved workers whose schedules are changed without adequate notice or compensation to file their own lawsuits.

That wasn’t enough to satisfy Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants. Noting that “nearly a quarter of the workforce is currently unemployed,” Tunney appealed to his colleagues to also delay an increase in Chicago’s minimum wage and the predictable scheduling ordinance until Jan. 1. Both take effect July 1.

“Employers are just as vulnerable in this pandemic as the workers. ... To introduce these regulations and wage increases at this time is the wrong time,” Tunney said.

“I just worry this is really going to set Chicago employers and workers back. The people we want to help the most.”

  • Businesses whose licenses have expired since March 15. Fines tied to those expired licenses would be waived. So would accessibility fees paid by cabdrivers and ride-hailing companies whose business has slowed to a crawl.
  • Affordable housing. The mayor’s plan authorizes $3 million in grants and no-interest loans to 40 affordable housing projects that together provide 3,400 units. Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) branded the relief a “$3 million bail-out for developers” that would be better spent helping renters.
  • Restaurants with outdoor dining spaces poised to make a comeback as soon as the stay-at-home shackles are lifted. When they do, they’ll have an extra hour to play with, thanks to an ordinance allowing downtown Chicago’s outdoor patios and rooftop gardens to stay open until midnight this spring, summer and fall.

Also on Wednesday, Lightfoot followed through on her promise to introduce an ordinance that would triple — to 90 days — the amount of advance warning landlords would be required to give tenants whose leases are not being renewed. Tenants of larger buildings being renovated would be entitled to a one-time payment of $2,500.

Progressive aldermen demanding real rent relief were not satisfied. They sent the mayor’s ordinance to the Rules Committee, where legislation opposed by the administration normally goes to die.

Lightfoot shrugged off the insult and said she still expects the ordinance to be approved in June.

What about those who say she’s not doing enough?

“There’s always gonna be people who say that. I think we’ve done a tremendous amount,” the mayor said.

“But the magnitude of the problem—really where it originates from is landlords need to pay their mortgages. That relief....has to come from the federal government. The lobbying should be there.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) introduced an ordinance that would allow any business forced to close for more than 30 days — either because of the governor’s order or because employees got sick with COVID-19 — to petition the city to refund its license fees for that period.

And Aldermen Matt Martin (47th) and Harry Osterman (48th) joined Lightfoot in introducing their long-awaited ordinance to chip away at Chicago’s severe shortage of affordable housing by legalizing coach houses and other so-called “accessory dwelling units.”

“We are gonna be extraordinarily vigorous in making sure that all of these additional spaces are up to code. There’s gonna be vigorous permitting and inspection. But, I think it offers a measure of relief—both for those who are seeking affordable housing as well as those who have the space and need some extra income,” the mayor said.


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