clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

To get out of this mess, we need bold thinking. Here’s what city leaders should do

Downtown Chicago remains largely shutdown because of the pandemic.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

If you want to tick off a top Chicago official, try implying that the city isn’t doing all it can to control the pandemic and solve the injustices it has revealed.

But the fact is, the city isn’t. The current strategy isn’t working, and nothing suggests that’s going to change soon. A vaccine isn’t likely to have an impact for at least a year, as the CDC’s Anthony Fauci has said.

Neither the city nor the state has shown much interest in approaches that have gotten results in other countries, and that could easily be implemented in Illinois. Long-term plans for rectifying the inequalities made worse by the pandemic are grossly inadequate.

More could — and should — be done. This column discusses what the city needs to do now. The next installment describes what it must do to fix itself over the long haul.

Existential crisis

“Existential crisis” doesn’t accurately describe most urban problems. But that’s what Chicago faces today.

The city is in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe like no other in its history —\– worse than the Great Fire, the 1918 flu pandemic or the 1960s riots.

What’s different now compared to past rough times is that we’re dealing with not one but multiple cascading disasters:

· The pandemic isn’t over. Since June, the critical metrics have headed up, not down. The positivity rate, a measure of virus spread, has hovered around 5% for a month. In New York, where business leaders complain about how terrible things are, it’s under 1%.

· Downtown, Chicago’s growth engine for the past decade and the chief prop beneath its finances, looks to be out of business for the duration. Streets and businesses are largely empty. There’s no telling when normal economic activity will resume.

· As a result, we don’t merely stand at the edge of the fiscal abyss, we’re toppling into it. Absent dramatic improvement in the financial picture, not just the city but the state face insolvency. A Wall Street Journal op-ed writer has suggested bankruptcy is Chicago’s “best bad option.”

Core problem: restarting downtown

The perception that Chicago is helpless to prevent violence following last summer’s looting hasn’t helped matters. The steps the city has taken to prevent a recurrence — quick response teams for civil disorder, monitoring of social media, robust investigation and prosecution of lawbreakers, etc. — may have calmed nerves for now.

But the city isn’t close to solving its core problem: getting the pandemic sufficiently under control that the downtown economy can be restarted and tax coffers can refill.

It’s not that local leaders aren’t trying. The Chicago Department of Public Health has been diligently conducting contact tracing — reaching out to those with COVID-19 to determine how they got the virus and whom they may have infected.

The problem is that, like other U.S. contact tracing efforts, CDPH is relying on traditional methods — mainly calling people on the phone — and getting mediocre results. Only 55% to 60% of COVID-positive individuals can be reached. Of those, useful information can be obtained from just half.

CDPH plans to shift contact tracing to community-based organizations, on the theory that these groups will have better rapport with local residents and get better results. The hope is community tracers will reach 70% of those testing positive.

Community tracers may do better at persuading contactees to provide useful information. But unless they’re miraculously successful, it’s hard to see things improving enough to slow COVID-19’s spread.

Technology could help. Digital contact tracing using a mobile app, discussed here previously, has been disappointing so far. But other, less ambitious approaches have proven effective.

‘COVID access control’

One such technology might be termed COVID access control. It involves a mobile app that displays a code or other indicator that must be displayed to gain access to buildings, transit or restaurants and entertainment venues, depending on how it’s implemented.

COVID access control was pioneered in China and adopted in Moscow, where it could be imposed by fiat. It has gradually caught on in democratic countries, including South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, which have low infection rates. The UK is piloting a version in London.

An access control app called Safer Illinois is in use at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Developed by a U of I team, the app is tied to COVID test results — for example, undergraduates who’ve tested negative within the past four days get a “building access granted” indication. Only those with an access-granted indication, meaning they’re COVID free, are allowed into university buildings.

Safer Illinois alone won’t end the pandemic. Frequent testing is also essential, along with masks, social distancing and other measures.

Public cooperation is critical. U of I virus outbreaks have been traced to knuckleheads who attended or even organized parties knowing they were COVID-positive.

Nonetheless, Safer Illinois holds great promise. It allows a semblance of normal life to resume before the virus has been fully stamped out.

In principle the concept would work in downtown Chicago, where people are used to showing ID to enter office buildings. Asking them to display an app showing they’re COVID-negative is no great leap. If coupled with frequent testing, the app could help make downtown safe enough for people to return to work.

The U of I is touting a package called Shield T3, which includes a cheap, quick COVID saliva test in addition to the mobile app. Gov. J.B. Pritzker calls the test “game changing” and wants to use it throughout Illinois.

Too little interest

But the state isn’t interested in Safer Illinois.

“IDPH is not currently in discussion with the U of I to use its app,” the Illinois Department of Public Health says in an email. “IDPH is developing an app that is separate and apart. IDPH has left the door open to using some or all aspects of Shield T3, but no decisions have been made.”

City officials know about Safer Illinois, but show no great interest either. They’re not alone — COVID access control apparently hasn’t been adopted by any U.S. city.

Safer Illinois isn’t the only possible solution for Chicago. Many flavors of pandemic control technology exist. Other than high-level surveillance, they’ve made little headway in this country due to concerns about privacy and public resistance, despite their usefulness in limiting COVID spread elsewhere.

Selling the public on access control technology would take bold leadership. If city or state officials won’t take the first step, the downtown business community should start the conversation. The alternative is ruin and an end to the progress the city has made over the past 40 years.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.