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Hotel Essex will offer free rooms, parking, meals to exhausted first-responders

Jim Tracy, president of the firefighters union, called the rooms a “huge relief” to members caring for young children or elderly parents or grandparents. Police union president Kevin Graham, while grateful, said more rooms are needed.

Jennifer Banaszak (center) takes the oath of office during the graduation ceremony for her and 34 other Chicago Fire Department paramedics at Chicago Police Headquarters Tuesday morning, March 31, 2020. The paramedics graduated ahead of schedule to address the need for more first responders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jennifer Banaszak (center) takes the oath of office during the graduation ceremony for her and 34 other Chicago Fire Department paramedics at Chicago Police Headquarters Tuesday morning. The paramedics graduated ahead of schedule to address the need for more first responders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago police officers, firefighters and paramedics on the front lines of the city’s war against the coronavirus no longer will have to worry about bringing the virus home to their families.

The Hotel Essex, 800 S. Michigan Ave., has agreed to set aside 274 rooms for Chicago’s exhausted army of first responders.

Last week, the Essex had been announced as one of five hotels easing the strain on overburdened hospitals. But City Hall said Tuesday the South Loop hotel would be for first responders only, who also will receive free meals and parking.

More hotel rooms are likely to follow suit, with the city picking up the tab at an estimated cost of $175 a room per night. The Essex rooms will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

“They’re working incredible hours. ... And they’re worried about bringing the virus home to their families,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a news conference at police headquarters.

“We want to make sure they get a place that’s close for them to be able to just take a load off, if you will. Be there, get respite and get ready for the next shift. … This is really to provide extra support … and really demonstrate that we are grateful for their sacrifice and service.”

Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Richard C. Ford II (left), Jim Tracy, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot at CPD headquarters Tuesday morning, March 31, 2020.
Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Richard C. Ford II (left) and Jim Tracy, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, joined Mayor Lori Lightfoot Tuesday at CPD headquarters as the mayor spoke about support for first responders amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Jim Tracy, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, called the hotel rooms a “huge relief” for his members, many of whom have young children or are caring for elderly parents or grandparents.

“This is a fantastic weight off of a lot of our spouses’ shoulders — knowing that there’s some place that their husband or wife can go to and not have to come home after a long day,” Tracy said.

“The Essex hotel is going to have a room for them. Whether they have the virus [or] have mild symptoms, they’re not gonna bring it home to their families.”

Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham has been pushing the city to minimize the risk to police officers by providing additional masks, closing police stations to the public and discontinuing police roll calls.

But he thanked the mayor for securing the first of what he hopes will be several hotels dedicated exclusively to first responders.

The initial complement of 274 rooms is nowhere near enough in a department that already has 50 officers who have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 800 employees calling in sick on a daily basis, Graham said.

“It is important to our members that they do not bring the virus home to their family. It has been a point of contention that we have talked about with our own members and what we are planning to do,” he said.

Graham noted that his wife is a doctor. They have had a conversation about “which one of us would be living someplace else provided the other gets this virus.”

“These are conversations that are going on in households. They are going on in Lodge 7 members’ homes. They are concerned about their spouses. They are concerned about their children. With this hotel in place, it is one thing less that they have to worry about,” Graham said.

Lightfoot made the announcement after presiding over an extraordinary graduation ceremony for 34 paramedics rushed through the fire academy after accelerated training because reinforcements are so desperately needed.

Normally, graduation ceremonies are joyous occasions with cheering family and friends filling the ballroom at Navy Pier. Tuesday’s graduation was a somber, candidates-only affair at public safety headquarters, at 35th and State streets.

The paramedics were seated at least six feet apart, maintaining the recommended social distance.

“This is the epitome of trial by fire. But this is what we all signed up for,” Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II told graduates.

Lightfoot noted the coronavirus crisis has “changed everything, including this graduation.”

“Your city needs you now more than ever. As proof of that, look no further than the fact that you’re graduating ahead of schedule. Your course work was intentionally accelerated. Your classes were held in small groups. … And as you leave here today, some of you will be put on the front lines of this crisis that is entirely without precedent,” the mayor said.

“You will encounter people who are sick and frightened. You will be tired. You will be stressed. But this speaks to how much you are needed at this moment. You are the heroes people count on to help them through their darkest days. You are their lifeline.”

The mayor closed by telling the graduates: “As all-consuming as the current crisis is, we will win this fight by bonding together and proving to ourselves and to the nation that, in Chicago, we will never be broken.”