Maskless Monday no reason to celebrate, some say

A coalition of community groups, public health advocates and parents of Chicago Public School students accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker of caving to political pressure to lift the mandates — and putting Black and Brown lives in danger in the process.

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In early January, the city began requiring proof-of-vaccination to eat in a restaurant, and masks were still required indoors. Monday, those restrictions were lifted.

In early January, the city began requiring proof-of-vaccination to eat in a restaurant, and masks were still required indoors. Monday, those restrictions were lifted.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Not everyone was celebrating “freedom-from-masks Monday” by showing their faces and pocketing their masks and vaccine identification cards.

A coalition of community groups, public health advocates and parents of Chicago Public School students accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker of caving to political pressure to lift the mandates — and putting Black and Brown lives in danger in the process.

Erykah Nava is the mother of a CPS first-grader and an organizer for Illinois Raise Your Hand.

Nava said she’s concerned that CPS may soon yield to pressure from “many white wealthy parents” to lift the safety measures included in an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union. That deal ended a dispute that had canceled classes for five days in January.

“Those parents do not represent our community’s most vulnerable and oppressed in the Chicago Public Schools. Nor do they represent the care we have towards our disabled, immuno-compromised, low-income unvaccinated in our Black and Brown communities,” Nava said.

Nava articulated the lingering risks.

Many CPS parents are front-line workers “consistently exposed” to COVID. They either have children age 5 or younger not yet eligible to be vaccinated; kids ages 5 and 11, a group that still has a low vaccination rate; or are parents of students ages 12 to 18, nearly half of whom remain unvaccinated.

“We cannot leave those children and their families to fend for themselves in the middle of a pandemic,” Nava said.

“We need a vaccine mandate for schools. It is our communities who are dying from COVID and long COVID complications. We will not accept any more mass COVID deaths,” she said.

“It is selfish and individualistic to want to ‘return to normal’ because that means you get to ignore the mass deaths. ... When people tell us … that COVID is like the flu, they are really saying our most vulnerable do not matter. That their lives are expendable for the sake of normalcy.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot removes her face mask before speaking to reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022 to announce the easing of indoor mask and vaccine requirements in Chicago.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot removes her face mask before speaking to reporters last week during a press conference to announce the easing of indoor mask and vaccine requirements in Chicago.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Dr. Jesu Estrada is the mother of two CPS students, ages 6 and 12. She works at Harold Washington College and serves as chapter chair for Local 1600 of the Cook County College Teachers Union.

Although 70% of Chicago’s population is vaccinated, Estrada argued a majority of the unvaccinated are the Black and Brown students that she serves.

“I have had students tell me, ‘I’m not gonna get vaccinated now and I never will.’ … I’m really concerned that they could be hospitalized or end up dying,” Estrada said.

“Our communities, our families deserve nothing less. Keep the masks. Keep the vaccines. Nothing short of that.”

Lonette Sims predicted Lightfoot’s decision to lift the indoor mask mandate and proof of vaccine requirements would have “tragic consequences” for essential workers like herself.

“We are removing the indoor mask mandate and vaccine requirements while the city has experienced a racial gap in vaccine accessibility,” Sims said, demanding approval of a proposed ordinance that would create a robust, city-wide vaccination program. Dubbed by supporters as the “Take the Vaccine to the People” ordinance, it has languished in the Chicago City Council’s Rules Committee for nearly a year.

Dr. Howard Ehrman is a former assistant city health commissioner who now works as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.

A constant critic of the city’s pandemic response, Ehrman held up a graph of vaccinations by race in 12 states, information gathered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In every one of those states, including Illinois, whites are “two-to-three times more likely to be vaccinated” than Blacks or Latinos — who are, therefore, “two-to-three times more likely to be infected and die.”

Ehrman scoffed at what he called the “racism” behind the argument from officials at the highest levels of the federal government who “basically want us to believe that, now, everything is okay because this disease is now endemic” and “like the flu.”

“It’s not like the flu. It’s 15 times more likely to be transmitted than the flu. You’re six times more likely to die than the flu. And who’s gonna get this disease first? It’s primarily Black and Brown children in Chicago Public Schools, including my two grandchildren. It’s primarily front-line workers who are working right now in restaurants, bars, Amazon warehouses and factories,” Ehrman said.

“This is a crime against humanity. This is genocide. Nothing less.”

CPS officials did not respond directly to the demand for a COVID vaccine mandate in time for the 2022-23 school year.

Its statement simply stressed that, “for now” at least, “universal masking” in CPS schools and offices would continue.

“We are in the process of reviewing the latest masking guidelines” form the CDC and “working with our labor and public health partners on how to preserve a safe, healthy learning environment for all as we transition into this new phase of the pandemic,” the statement said.

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