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Lightfoot, police unions continue high-stakes game of chicken on vaccine mandate for city workers

The mayor says Chicago will be protected this weekend, even if half of the city’s police force is placed on no-pay status for refusing to report their vaccine status. One City Council member, however, predicted “pure melee.”

A Chicago Police Department SUV.
Regardless of how many police officers can’t work because they have refused the COVID-19 vaccine, Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted Wednesday that the city will be protected.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police union leaders on Wednesday continued their game of chicken on the city’s vaccine mandate, with Lightfoot insisting Chicago will be adequately protected, even if half the police force is placed on no-pay status.

“I don’t expect that to happen. And again, I’m gonna be focused on the positive, which is, the whole point that all of our city employees — whether they are sworn or civilian — do their duty and make sure they get vaccinated,” Lightfoot said, denying she has canceled police days off or placed officers on 12-hour shifts.

“I believe that, as a city government, we’ve got to lead by example. … The only way that we can make this real is we’ve got to hold people accountable. And we are absolutely prepared to do that.”

Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara has warned Chicago could be forced to get by this weekend with a police force of “50% or less” if the mayor follows through on her threat to place employees who fail to report their vaccination status by Friday on “non-disciplinary, no-pay status.”

But, Lightfoot said, “John Catanzara says a lot of things. A lot of it offensive and racist and foolish. But we’ll see what happens. We’ll be prepared for any eventuality.”

She added: “Our message is to the members: Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your partner. Protect members of the public. Get yourself vaccinated. We don’t want to lose any more police officers from COVID-19 deaths when the life-saving vaccine is readily available.”

Catanzara has urged his members not to comply with the mayor’s Friday deadline to report their COVID-19 vaccine status on the city’s vaccine portal, even if it costs them their paychecks.

Instead, he has directed rank-and-file police officers to file forms “no earlier than Thursday” exempting them from receiving the vaccine for one of three reasons the union has insisted upon: religious, medical or conscientious objector.

He directed them to report to work, as scheduled, on Friday and force the city to send them home.

In a video posted on the union’s Facebook page, Catanzara told officers their insurance benefits will continue for 30 days, even if they are placed on “non-disciplinary” suspension without pay.

“I can guarantee you that no-pay status will not last more than 30 days,” Catanzara said in the video. “There’s no way they’re going to be able to sustain a police department workforce at 50% capacity or less for more than seven days without something budging.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot got her second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Feb. 19, 2021. It was administered by Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot got her second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in February. Doing the honors was Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner or the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago police officer, is among six Chicago alderpersons who wrote to Lightfoot last month, urging her to reconsider her vaccine mandate, calling it an “infringement on our constitutional rights.”

On Wednesday, Napolitano said the mayor has a choice: repeal the mandate or risk “chaos” in a violent city with 1,000 police vacancies already.

“If you remove even more police from that equation, our streets are gonna be completely lost. … You’re gonna have cars not manned. There’s gonna be no officers in cars. … You’ll get in your car and you’ll have 20 or 30 jobs waiting for you,” Napolitano said.

“Criminals know this stuff. they know what’s going on. You’re gonna see pure melee.”

Napolitano said it would be a “different story” if the vaccine “eradicated the virus, kept you from spreading the virus, kept you from getting the virus and kept you out of the hospital.”

He added: “You should not be forcing anybody to put something in their body that they don’t believe in or they don’t trust or they don’t even have enough years and years of information on. This is wrong.”

A tracking study of the Pfizer vaccine showed it remained 97% protective against severe COVID-19 — and 84% against milder infection — after six months. Experts say the risk of infection is far, far lower for fully vaccinated people, who spread the the virus at far lower rates than the unvaccinated. And the risk of hospitalization or death is minuscule compared to the unvaccinated, data shows.

Despite the mayor’s denials, sources said Lightfoot met with police brass to discuss eliminating officers’ days off and requiring officers to work 12-hour shifts if there’s a mass exodus of cops because of her vaccination mandate.

Several officers told the Sun-Times they have not been vaccinated and expect to stay home after Friday.

They said almost everyone in some police units will do the same — causing major problems for investigating murders and staffing police districts. The department might have to resort to taking officers normally assigned to desk jobs and putting them on the street to cover for missing officers, they said.

This comes as retirements so far this year have far surpassed all of 2020 and are nearly double those in 2018.

Some have called the mayor’s edict a poor poker move — playing her hand before she had strong cards. Others say it’s a potential “Bilandic” moment.

Still others wonder whether she will blink and rescind her order to prevent officers from walking out the door en masse. They say public safety workers are barred from striking, but this would amount to a “legalized strike.”

Contributing: AP