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Capitol in Washington closed to the public, but Chicago’s City Hall still open — for now

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, is advocating a two-week closing of the nerve center of city government.

Chicago City Hall
A two-week shut-down of Chicago’s City Hall, which one alderman is pushing for, would mean postponing Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Capitol building in Washington D.C. is closed to the public, but for now, Chicago’s City Hall, the nerve center of city government, will remain open.

A top mayoral ally thinks shutting City Hall is the right move, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot is not ready to order that drastic step just yet.

Late Thursday, aldermen were told Wednesday’s City Council meeting — and the committee meetings leading up to it — will go on as scheduled and that Chicago Public Schools will remain open as public health officials closely monitor the situation.

“When you think about safety, food and security issues that would result from a mass closure [of public schools], that would be a big concern. Also, parents or other caretakers who are employed and having them be responsible would be a big concern if we were to close all of the schools,” said Ald. Matt Martin (47th).

Wednesday’s Council meeting will, however, be kept as short as possible while still fulfilling the legal requirement for public participation before officials proceedings start, Martin said.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), the mayor’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, wanted to go further — by closing City Hall at least temorarily. She argued that it’s time to “be proactive about this.”

“We can’t stop it from coming. It’s already here. Now, what we have to do is worry about just slowing it down. We need to close City Hall for two weeks. Close our office. Maybe [leave] just a skeleton crew. Two people. Encourage people to make requests via the phone so we’re not transmitting,” Garza said Thursday morning.

On Tuesday, the legislative session scheduled for next week in Springfield was canceled, as were planned tours of the statehouse. The building itself is still open.

Garza calls a two-week shutdown, including canceling next Wednesday’s Council meeting, the right thing to do, considering that scores of Chicagoans typically line up outside the City Council chambers for the right to speak during the public participation section before every meeting.

Council meetings often draw large protests and news conferences outside the chambers. Inside, dozens of spectators fill the gallery.

All of that runs contrary to advice from the Centers for Disease Control to “stay away from big crowds,” Garza said.

“We need to be proactive and put a stop to this. People are dying. . . . It’s gonna get worse before it gets better.”

Lightfoot has already made the difficult decision to cancel Saturday’s downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade, Sunday’s South Side Irish parade and a smaller parade on the Northwest Side.

Asked whether the mayor is contemplating a City Hall shutdown, Garza said: “They’re talking about it every day, all day long.”

Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) acknowledged: “This could be not only serious, but very serious very soon.”

But Cardenas argued City Hall should be shut down only if somebody who works at or has visited the building recently tests positive for the coronavirus.

“We want to be cautious. We want to avoid large crowds, obviously. We asked all the seniors not to come down. But, to some extent, government has to run. Some of the things we’ve got to do have to get done. We’re not there yet to a complete shutdown,” Cardenas said.

“If there’s a case — anybody within City Hall and its perimeter — then we’ll have no choice. Then, we’ll take that action.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Finance Committee chairman, said he’s “working through the options” to keep the Council functioning but while also keeping public crowds away from City Hall, at least temporarily.

“We can’t shut the whole thing down. We’re probably gonna have committee meetings like Finance. We’ll try to filter a lot of stuff through there so we can continue to make sure that we’re doing the fiscal transactions, legislative transactions to keep the city moving,” he said.

“We would try to push people to do public comment through like a live stream. We’re talking to the IT guys about that. My meetings might be longer where I would just read all the public comment . . . We want to make sure it’s legal.”