Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday unveiled a plan she called a national model to ease the strain on overburdened hospitals: Rent thousands of rooms in empty downtown hotels and reopen a shuttered hospital to isolate patients who test positive for the coronavirus or have been exposed to someone who has.
In addition, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago will provide 400 beds for homeless Chicagoans now living in close quarters in homeless encampments.
The hotel partnership is unprecedented and extraordinary. To make it happen, City Hall first brokered an agreement to resolve an 18-month strike by UNITE HERE Local 1 against Fillmore Hospitality, operator of Hotel One Sixty-Six downtown. That will allow the union’s members to return to work to provide food and housekeeping services for patients in isolation at the hotel, formerly known as the Cambria Chicago Magnificent Mile.
In all, five hotels are set to provide 1,000 beds by Tuesday and 2,000 beds by the end of the week. Only Hotel One Sixty-Six has signed on so far; the city is in the process of finalizing deals with others.
“The men and women who are coming back to work preparing meals and cleaning linens —they are a vital part of the fabric we are shoring up here,” said Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara.
Karen Kent, president of UNITE HERE Local 1, called the partnership “bittersweet” because so many of her members have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“At a time when people feel powerless, it is great to be able to feel like there is ... something important we can contribute,” Kent said. “People want to do this to help save lives and help people get healthy and get through this together. While this is a terribly sad moment for many reasons, it’s a wonderful moment that we can work together.”
During a City Hall news conference, Lightfoot pegged the cost of just one of the hotels at $1 million “for a 30-day burn rate.” She did not identify the source of funding at a time when city revenues are plummeting. The total potential cost of the program remains unclear, depending as it does on the length and scope of the crisis.
The patients will provide at least some measure of business for hotels that have either closed or seen their occupancy rates plummet during the pandemic.
“These agreements are not just a big deal for our city. In the absence of federal leadership, we have created a model and plan that could be followed by other cities and towns across the nation,” the mayor said. “We have based our plan on what worked in other countries to respond to immediate medical needs, isolate and quarantine those who are at risk and slow the spread of this virus.”
200 more rooms at shuttered hospital
Yet another agreement — with the operators of the shuttered Metro South Medical Center in Blue Island — will free up 200 more rooms in that hospital for quarantined COVID-19 patients. Those rooms are expected to become available Thursday.
Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the influx of thousands of additional beds will “take the strain off” Chicago-area hospitals and free up space for those patients most at risk.
And who exactly will the isolation and quarantine facilities serve?
“First, to temporarily house people who are waiting for test results, but can’t return home because of their living situation,” Arwady said. “Second, we may use them to quarantine high-risk, healthy individuals who can’t be at home because, for example, an ill person might be at home. And thirdly, we will use them to isolate people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but who have a mild illness” and can’t return home.
“We don’t want to have to admit them and use a hospital bed just because there isn’t somewhere safe for them to stay. “
Arwady stressed that city employees, led by the Department of Public Health, will be “on-site, using safe protocols” to provide food and housekeeping services with guests “remaining in their individuals rooms throughout the isolation or quarantine period.” They will be properly trained and have “no direct interaction” with guests.
“This is not a gathering of individuals within hotel settings,” the commissioner said.
YMCA taking in homeless
The agreement forged over the weekend with the YMCA will create 400 additional shelter beds at shuttered Y’s so homeless Chicagoans can be housed at least six feet apart instead of on top of each other at homeless shelters.
It comes at a time when YMCA faces an uncertain future.
“The response of community-based organizations has been amazing. In the past 96 hours, we have essentially launched a second shelter network in order to allow for the recommended spacing,” said Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison-Butler.
Contributing: Lynn Sweet, David Roeder