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Coronavirus sparks nursing homes in Chicago and beyond to rethink polling place duties

Polling place switches are prompting city election officials to encourage voters to either early vote by March 16, or vote by mail, with a deadline to apply on Thursday. Officials said applications have to be in their Chicago office or arrive via mail by 5 p.m.

A voter casts his ballot at a polling place on Election Day in Chicago in 2015.
A voter casts his ballot at a polling place on Election Day in Chicago in 2015.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is scrambling to find polling places after coronavirus fears prompted seven city nursing homes to opt out of serving as Election Day sites and about a dozen other locations to request being relieved of early voting and Election Day duties.

Some suburban and Downstate election officials are also feeling the pinch as nursing homes decline to serve as polling places to protect their especially vulnerable residents.

Health officials on Tuesday announced the state has 19 confirmed coronavirus cases, including ones in Kane and McHenry counties — the first in Illinois outside of Cook County.

And it’s raising questions about the overall impact the virus could have on next week’s presidential primary.

“I suspect it may affect turnout as well,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Commissioners spokesman.

The polling place switches are prompting city election officials to encourage voters to either early vote by March 16, or vote by mail, with a deadline to apply on Thursday. Officials said applications have to be in their Chicago office or arrive via mail by 5 p.m.

Seven nursing homes — representing eight precincts in the city — have requested not to serve as polling sites, Allen said. On the other hand, some senior facilities don’t want to shut down as polling places because that’s where their own residents vote, he noted.

A polling place in the 47th Ward in 2015. File Photo.
A polling place in the 47th Ward in 2015. File Photo.
Craig Newman/Sun-Times

“We have a mixture of situations because then it becomes a health issue to move them to another site, to have them travel off the grounds of the facility to go vote somewhere else,” Allen said of nursing home residents.

Additionally, Allen said there are 26 city precincts, out of 2,069, in which no polling place has been identified for Election Day. He said about a dozen of those precincts include polling places that have opted out of holding voting because of the coronavirus.

Allen said it’s not unusual for all the declared sites to be lined up at this point, but “what’s unusual is this emergency declaration, now on top of everything else is affecting it.”

Additionally, early voting was discontinued at all nursing homes in the city, and residents were instructed by vote by mail instead, Allen said.

Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said DuPage County has also notified the board that nursing homes in the county have been withdrawing as polling locations.

Dietrich said nursing home residents will instead be given mail ballots.

And the Illinois Department of Public Health has suggested to other counties that it would be safer to move polling locations from senior centers, including in Downstate Quincy, where the Illinois Veterans Home has served as a polling location. Peoria on Tuesday also announced that polling was being moved out of nursing homes in the county.

Chicago voters can find their polling places online. Other Illinois voters can find information on their polling locations on the Illinois State Board of Elections website.

Early voting began on March 2, and Chicago election officials have urged voters worried about contracting coronavirus to vote by mail instead of trekking to a voting location.

All Chicago early voting locations are open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.

A sticker sits on the front of a voting booth at a polling place on election day February 24, 2015 in Chicago. File Photo
A sticker sits on the front of a voting booth at a polling place on election day February 24, 2015 in Chicago. File Photo
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Through Sunday, 48,751 Chicago voters used early voting, which is down 6% from this point in 2016, Allen said. The vote-by-mail applications are up a whopping 244% from the 2016 primary total, with 83,194 applying to use that route this year.

The total number of those who have early voted or requested mail ballots is at 132,000, Allen said on Sunday. At this point in the March 2016 election, Chicago’s combined early voting and vote by mail was fewer than 84,000.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website reports that older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.

The Health Care Council of Illinois, which represents 300 nursing facilities in the state, said it is working with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state’s public health department to follow all coronavirus guidelines to protect its residents, as well as its staff.

“Since our residents are at heightened risk for complications because of their age and underlying health conditions, nursing homes in Illinois are always vigilant in protecting our residents from communicable diseases,” the group said in a statement.

The group said it’s following recommendations, which include monitoring nursing home employees for potential symptoms prior to their shifts, and encouraging them to stay home if they are sick.

There are also visitor restrictions in place, “with few exceptions, and those allowed to enter will be screened,” the group said.