The City Council met in person Wednesday for the first time in more than a year, but not all 50 aldermen were in the chambers.
Aldermen had the option to show up via Zoom instead, and Alds. Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Maria Hadden (49th) were among 22 aldermen choosing the virtual route.
Sawyer, chairman of the Council’s Health and Human Relations Committee, said he’s been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and believes it’s safe to return to City Hall.
Still, he chose remote participation out of a desire to stand “in solidarity” with aldermen who cannot be there in person, he said.
“My seatmate [Greg Mitchell] hasn’t been vaccinated yet. I don’t think Carrie [Austin] has been, and I know that she’s had some health challenges that we’re all concerned about. I’d kind of like to stick by them … until we can all come back together,” Sawyer said.
“I’m not judging whether it was a mistake or not” to meet in person, he added. “I just hope that, by next month, we can all come back together.”
Hadden said she, too, has been fully vaccinated but is concerned about “our increased numbers, where we’re at, all of these variants and the necessity for us to be in person vs. virtual.”
She argued “things have been working very well virtually” even if committee meetings on Zoom seem to drag on for hours.
“While the Council chamber setup looks like it’s pretty thoughtful, it just seems like, with numbers the way they are, with the positivity rates and all the interactions we have with people to and from, it seems like doing virtual was just the safer bet for right now,” Hadden said.
Hadden said she won’t feel truly comfortable about returning to the Council chambers until there are strict “in-person vs. virtual” health metric guidelines established by the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“At this time, they don’t exist. But I know that other legislative bodies have such guidelines and protocols around testing and what have you,” she said.
“I’m hoping that we get there. That will help us be a little bit more functional because I anticipate that we’re gonna have some back-and-forth like this for months to come.”
Before the meeting, a masked Mayor Lori Lightfoot made her way around the Council floor, giving out hugs and fist bumps, even to two of her most outspoken critics: indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and Burke’s seatmate Ray Lopez (15th).
A few minutes later, Lightfoot huddled on the rostrum with Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th).
Alds. Nick Sposato (38th), Samantha Nugent (39th), Anthony Napolitano (41st) and Gardiner savored their reunion by taking a picture together. Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) hugged just about everyone she saw, including Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the Rules Committee chairman who serves as Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader.
Harris greeted a masked Burke by touching his arm.
When the roll was called at 10:09 a.m., 26 of the 48 aldermen attending in some form were in their seats. Alds. Tom Tunney (44th) and Roberto Maldonado (26th) showed up late, making it 28.
During roll call, some declared themselves with gusto.
“In the flesh,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) responded: “It’s good to be back. I’m present.”
Throughout the pandemic, anyone arriving in the City Hall lobby has been subject to temperature and screening checks and required to wear a mask.
Attendance Wednesday was limited to aldermen and “staff essential to conducting the meeting.” Members of the public interested in attending were required to line up at City Hall south of the LaSalle Street entrance.
To accommodate social distancing between aldermen, the second floor of City Hall was closed to the public. Aldermen were spaced out on the floor and in the second-floor seating area normally reserved for the public.
Chairs and microphones were removed to keep aldermen apart. Mitts and Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) had a row to themselves.
The public was confined to the third-floor gallery, which is closed off by windows. Individuals were selected for public comment at random.
George Blakemore, a fixture at Council meetings, was the only member of the public to speak in person. During the public comment period, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) took his mask off.
When Economic and Capital Development Chairman Gilbert Villegas (36th) was delivering his committee report, Lightfoot had to admonish aldermen to pipe down.
“I know there’s a buzz in the room and it’s exciting to be back, but please keep your voices down,” she said.
When Workforce Development Committee Chairman Sue Sadlowski-Garza (10th) delivered her committee report, she said, “It’s good to see you guys back here today. I feel like it’s the first day of school.”