Coronavirus live blog, June 18, 2020: Hugs, haircuts, handshakes — Dr. Ezike’s do’s and don’t’s

Here’s what we learned today about the continuing spread of the coronavirus and its ripple effects in Chicago and Illinois.

SHARE Coronavirus live blog, June 18, 2020: Hugs, haircuts, handshakes — Dr. Ezike’s do’s and don’t’s

State health officials on Thursday said another 55 people have died in Illinois of COVID-19, as another 593 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

Both figures marked the latest relatively low counts the state has seen so far this month following the worst of the pandemic’s brutal impact in mid-May.

But they raised the Illinois’ coronavirus death toll to 6,537 among the 134,778 people confirmed to have contracted the virus so far.

Here’s what else happened in Chicago and around the state as the battle against the coronavirus pandemic continued.


News

8:57 p.m. Hugs, haircuts, handshakes — Dr. Ezike’s do’s and don’t’s. (Spoiler alert: Handshake time frame ‘between a year and never again’)

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at a briefing last year.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Dr. Ngozi Ezike didn’t let her kids see their friends until this week.

And that was a carefully supervised backyard get-together — with masks.

She’s all for outdoor dining with the safety guidance she helped craft. And she got a manicure behind plexiglass from a woman who has done her nails for 15 years.

But handshakes?

“Not now. Between a year and never again,” the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health told the Sun-Times in a wide-ranging interview about her personal do’s and don’ts as she helps Illinois navigate through the pandemic.

A hug from a friend?

“No, we can show love virtually. I think that might be for a year or two,” she said.

For months, Ezike has been the state’s go-to for public health guidance as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s chief advisor on Illinois’ response to COVID-19.

Read the full story from reporter Tina Sfondeles.

8:03 p.m. Unique Chicago COVID-19 virus linked to early cases in China

A unique COVID-19 virus that spread through Chicago appears to link directly to an early outbreak in China and may not spread as easily and as rapidly as the virus prevalent in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., according to new research.

In a preliminary study of genetic makeup of the coronavirus in Chicago, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine researchers discovered a unique type that is more likely to be found locally than other parts of the country. The goal of better understanding the genetic difference in virus outbreaks is to use that information to develop effective vaccines.

After studying the genetic makeup of dozens of virus samples of nearly 90 people, the Northwestern researchers determined that there were three main types of the virus found locally.

Almost 60 percent of the samples studied were closely related to the virus that is prevalent in New York, which has been traced to Europe.

Reporter Brett Chase has the full story.

7:10 p.m. ‘Solitary confinement in my bedroom’: Illinois attorney general describes his COVID-19 symptoms

Virus_Outbreak_Illinois__16_.jpg

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul speaks during a news conference in Chicago earlier this year.

Noreen Nasir/AP Photo (file photo)

It started late Saturday night with sweating, shivering, teeth-chattering and feet that felt like they were on fire. That was followed by a cough that wouldn’t quit and a sore throat Kwame Raoul described as “out of this world.”

Raoul, Illinois attorney general, said Thursday he’s now “stuck in solitary confinement in my bedroom” as the highest-ranking Illinois politician known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.

He’s feeling “a little bit better” since he was tested late Monday. The results came Tuesday morning. His fever, which spiked at 101.4 degrees, has come down. But after a “meeting or two” on Zoom, he feels “exhausted afterwards, as if I played a football game.”

“I tire very easily. But overall, I have not had any breathing difficulties, which is a plus because I’ve heard of others having such breathing difficulties. Just feeling beat down, though,” he said.

“I’m in solitary confinement in my bedroom. It’s been a few days. It’s not fun. … My wife will bring in a tray. I’ll send a text: ‘Can I try some fruit?’ I feel guilty because I feel like I’m ordering room service or something.”

Read the full story from City Hall reporter Fran Spielman here.

6:30 p.m. Bears ‘extremely hopeful, confident’ to have fans at Soldier Field for 2020 season

As sports leagues work through coronavirus-related issues to resume playing, the Bears are optimistic their upcoming season will look somewhat normal at Soldier Field.

Team president and CEO Ted Phillips said Thursday the organization is planning to have fans in the stadium, though that’s not a certainty and he didn’t give specifics about reducing capacity to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“We’re still extremely hopeful, confident, that we’re gonna have a season with fans,” he said as part of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s virtual meeting. “It’s only good business practice to look at contingencies, and if we’ve learned anything in the past three months it’s expect the unexpected... But we’re still extremely hopeful.”

Reporter Jason Lieser has the full story.

3:32 p.m. 55 more Illinois coronavirus deaths, 593 new cases

State health officials on Thursday said another 55 people have died in Illinois of COVID-19, as another 593 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

Both figures marked the latest relatively low counts the state has seen so far this month following the worst of the pandemic’s brutal impact in mid-May.

But they raised the Illinois’ coronavirus death toll to 6,537 among the 134,778 people confirmed to have contracted the virus so far.

The latest deaths included two young Cook County residents: a woman in her 20s and a man in his 30s, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The most serious cases typically have affected older people with underlying health conditions. More than half the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been tied to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to state data. Illinois’ overall recovery rate is 93%.

Read the full story here.

2:50 p.m. Chicago’s iO Theater owner says comedy hub will not reopen due to lockdown

Chicago’s iO Theater, the longtime comedy hub, is closing its doors indefinitely.

Charna Halpern, the founder and co-owner of the company formerly known as ImprovOlympic, told the Sun-Times on Thursday that the revenue loss brought on by the March mandated shutdown of all theaters (and other non-essential businesses in Illinois) was the deciding factor.

Halpern added that she was “heartbroken” most over the inability to continue the teaching arm of the theater, whose famous alums include Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert, among others.

Halpern, who is the sole decision-maker of the company, said the financial woes also include a $250,000 property tax bill that is looming, which she is unable to pay. Halpern owns the building and is in discussion with a realtor over the possible sale of the site at 1501 N. Kingsbury.

Read the full story here.

2:44 p.m. Decline in new US coronavirus deaths may be only temporary

The number of deaths per day from the coronavirus in the U.S. has fallen in recent weeks to the lowest level since late March, even as states increasingly reopen for business. But scientists are deeply afraid the trend may be about to reverse itself.

“For now, it’s too soon to be reassured that deaths are going down and everything’s OK,” said Dr. Cyrus Shahpar of Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent epidemics.

Deaths from COVID-19 across the country are down to about 680 a day, compared with around 960 two weeks ago, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The analysis looked at a seven-day rolling average of deaths through Wednesday.

A multitude of reasons are believed to be at play, including the advent of effective treatments and improved efforts at hospitals and nursing homes to prevent infections and save lives.

But already there are warning signs.

Read the full story here.

12 p.m. Chicago bars reopen — no food needed — after new rules begin Wednesday

Chatting with a bartender about the virtues of home field advantage in the NFL, Christian Trezvant sat at the window of the The Green Lady tavern in Lake View with a shot and a beer in front of him.

“Sitting in this stool is like riding a bike,” said Trezvant, the first customer at the bar in months.

Wednesday was the first day The Green Lady and hundreds of other Chicago bars that don’t serve food could reopen to serve customers in an open-air setting.

Trezvant sat in one of 10 available seats by the front window. Owner Melani Domingues, meanwhile, sanitized everything between customers. Even the door was propped open — one less thing to touch.

“It feels like opening day,” Domingues said. “I am very fortunate in that I was able to pivot pretty quickly.”

The green light came down from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office Monday, finally applying the same rules that went into effect weeks ago for restaurants and food-serving bars to alcohol-only bars and microbreweries.

The mere two-day advance notice meant that some establishments weren’t able to get ready in time; many said they’re rapidly trying to prepare their outdoor patios for this weekend or next week.

But at Four Treys Tavern in North Center, owner Colleen Flood was receiving so many texts from regulars — ‘When are we going to be able to come back in?’ — that she made sure it happened.

Read the full story from Mitch Dudek and Ben Pope.

10:48 a.m. Some aren’t waiting for the 606 trail’s Monday reopening

Officially, the 606 trail on Chicago’s Northwest Side reopens Monday.

But unofficially, it’s already being used.

Despite the city order shutting it down in March, warm weather — and plenty of opportunity — has been too tempting for some.

Several cyclists, runners and stroller-pushers were on the trail Thursday morning. Traffic barriers meant to block people from a trail entrance at California and Bloomingdale venues lay on the pavement. Police tape used for the same purpose had been shorn.

The Lakefront Trail also reopens. When both are officially open, there will be restrictions, including hours of use (6 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and reason for use, namely, just exercise or transit.

Read the full story here.

9:34 a.m. Indiana, Wisconsin casinos open betting with masks, hand sanitizer – while Illinois studies its cards

Masks and hand sanitizer are the name of the game at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana.

You’ll have to raise your COVID-19 precautionary stakes by a temperature check for a seat at the table at the Ameristar in East Chicago.

But forget the table, cards and dice altogether at the reopened Potawatomi in Milwaukee; all bets are off except for slot machines at that casino 90 minutes north of Chicago.

As gambling meccas in the region gradually welcome customers back after a three-month coronavirus shutdown, there’s still no clear timeline for Illinois’ 10 casinos to reopen. But a look at casinos in neighboring states make one thing clear: Many bettors aren’t hedging when it comes to the newly reshuffled action — and that could be good news for Gov. J.B. Pritzker as his administration stares down a $2.7 billion state budget deficit.

Read the full story from Mitchell Armentrout here.

8:43 a.m. 606 Trail to reopen Monday

The popular 606 trail on the Northwest Side will reopen Monday, the same day the Lakefront Trail reopens, and with the same restrictions in place.

The 2.7-mile 606, officially the Bloomingdale Trail, has been closed since March.

Earlier this week, the city announced that when the Lakefront Trail reopens Monday, hours will be from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., but only for exercise and transit, and with social distancing enforced by monitors along the route.

The city also announced that billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin has donated $4.75 million to repair parts of the lakefront trail that were damaged by storms and high water levels over the winter. The contribution actually was made in April, and work started then on repaving parts of the path while the trail was closed. The money also will go toward additional work to fortify parts of the trail, especially on the South Side, to better protect them in the future.

Griffin had donated $12 million in 2016 to help complete separate bike and walking paths long the 18-mile pathway.

Read the full story here.

8:23 a.m. County buildings to reopen to public, 1st wave of workers early next month

The Cook County building and its administrative office building will reopen to the public early next month, which is also when the first wave of county employees will return to work, officials said Wednesday.

That return to in-person work on July 6 take place on the same day buildings like 69 W. Washington, the county’s administrative office building, will reopen to the public, though the county is taking precautions to try to keep people safe.

Anyone who enters the buildings will be required to wear a mask or facial covering and undergo thermal wellness and health screenings, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday at a news conference announcing the reopening plans.

“We’ve been through a difficult time,” Preckwinkle said. “While we’ve made incredible progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19 over the last few months, the pandemic is clearly not over. It’s important that we continue to follow health guidelines … as we navigate this new phase.”

Read the full story from Rachel Hinton here.

7:17 a.m. Pritzker announces $900M in COVID-19 relief grants for small businesses, struggling renters

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced a wide-ranging $900 million in grants to help small businesses impacted by COVID-19, as well as the many Illinoisans struggling to pay mortgages and rent amid the pandemic.

In front of a North Lawndale store that was looted about three weeks ago, Pritzker said about 3,500 businesses will be able to benefit from a $60 million grant program, as soon as early July.

The Democratic governor also announced that he would be extending a residential eviction ban until July 31. Pritzker first banned evictions when he issued a stay-at-home order on March 21.

Several progressive Democratic lawmakers tried to push through a more expansive rent relief measure that would have canceled rent and mortgage payments statewide for 180 days during a shortened legislative special session last month, but found resistance from realtors. Instead, a deal was reached to increase funds to the Illinois Housing Development Authority to administer a relief program.

Read the full story by Tina Sfondeles here.


New cases


Analysis

5:55 p.m. Public service workers essential during COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has shown how essential public service workers are to our communities, from public health experts tracking the virus and providing safety guidance to the now immensely overburdened workforce that processes unemployment claims to the streets and sanitation crews who pick up our trash every day.

While the vast majority of Chicagoans recognize and applaud the work of our public service heroes on the front lines of this crisis, the Sun-Times Editorial Board seems to think the appropriate response to their efforts is to cut their income and increase their workload. Not only would the austerity measures suggested by the Sun-Times fail to make any significant impact on the financial plight of state and local government — a fact the editorial board readily acknowledges — but they would demean public service and prolong the COVID-induced economic slump.

Most people understand the depth of this crisis and overwhelmingly support funding the public services needed to respond. In a recent national poll, 74% of respondents said they preferred funding for education, health care and other public services over reducing government spending or debt.

Read the full commentary by Robert G. Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

2:55 p.m. A ‘last responder’s’ COVID-19 message: ‘If they won’t listen to a doctor, maybe they’ll listen to an undertaker’

In a normal month, Symonds’ Funeral Home in north suburban Highwood handles five to eight funerals.

As the COVID-19 pandemic peaked here in May, that number jumped to 44.

The vast majority of those were COVID cases, said Irving Symonds III, the second-generation funeral home operator who is only just now starting to see his workload ease slightly.

“It’s still busy. It’s not like what it was. We really got slammed,” said Symonds, who spent much of May with families lined up outside his office door seeking to make arrangements while he got only three hours sleep per night trying to keep up with the work.

As Illinois continues with its reopening process and life returns to some semblance of normal, it would be a tragedy if people failed to keep in mind that what we’ve been dealing with is real — and continues to be real.

And I can’t think of any place better to bring home that point than a funeral home, where death gets about as real as real can get.

“We’re the last responders,” said Symonds, drawing on a reference to his profession that has been popularized during this pandemic.

Read the full commentary from columnist Mark Brown on a local funeral home operator at the front lines of COVID-19.

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