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.
“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 adviser on Illinois’ response to COVID-19.
And she’s using her expertise to guide decisions in her own life, even as Illinois moves to further re-openings come next Friday.
She is strict when it come to her loved ones. Her mother lives out of state, but she’s advised her siblings to “never go in the house.” Food is delivered to her mother’s door, and the family stays in touch with Zoom calls, she said. When asked if she would visit an elderly relative, the answer remained no, whether or not the relative had a pre-existing condition.
She said she needs at least a year to feel safe going to a family friend’s pool party.
“No, definitely not,” Ezike said of visits this summer. “My friends are, like, ‘We’ll be socially distant.’ You’re going to do that now, because it’s me. I don’t know what you’ve been doing for the last two weeks.”
Ezike said she’s pro-beaches, however.
“I think you could do that safely. You can get into your little spot and just be with your kids and keep everybody away. Maybe even wear a mask and be distant from other people,” Ezike said, adding, she’s not personally ready to visit beaches but said it could be “safely done.”
She’s OK with outdoor restaurants, with guidance she helped to craft. But she said she’d wait at least three months to feel safe in any indoor restaurants.
She’s waiting to get a haircut. And she said braiding is out of the question: “I like to wear my hair in braids, and that takes 12 hours. I can’t get my hair braided because I’m going to have to camp out with somebody for a day,” she said with a laugh.
Should she have to fly on an airplane, Ezike said she’d book a 5 a.m. flight.
“I would try to get a seat all the way in the back and board first and then try to wait for everybody to get off,” Ezike said. “I would try to do as much as I could and wear a mask, and hopefully if someone had to be seated close to me, be very anti-social. And have my back to the person the entire time.”
Ezike described her plane behavior with a chuckle, but she left no doubt she was serious. As the woman who stood behind a podium to announce thousands of deaths, she has seen COVID-19 ravage the state.
While metrics are improving in all capacities, she’s still hyper-vigilant and trying to balance it all.
“I’m trying to navigate being a normal human in this COVID world. I keep saying you do have to co-exist with COVID, and so that means you’re trying to get back to normal social things but in this new way with masking and distancing,” Ezike said. “People who know me, I think they go out of their way to show that, ‘Yes, yes, I know.’ I don’t think people would be jumping in to hug me,” she said.
Ezike has four children, with one college-bound this fall. She finally let her children visit with their friends in her backyard this week.
“They’ve been begging, begging,” Ezike said.
The children promised that their friends would socially distance and wear masks. They were told to enter through the backyard and stay there. They were even told to talk through masks, and their visit was supervised by Ezike.
“I just want to learn more. I hope that information will be favorable. That maybe kids don’t have a big role in transmission,” Ezike said. “We’re learning more every day. Just to play it on the safe side, I think this summer we’re just going to unfortunately let the summer play out.”
Ezike’s 11-year-old daughter celebrated her birthday in April with a 50-car procession, a parade and a fire truck.
“We stood on a corner and then all of her friends came by in a parade, with a fire truck and a tow truck. People threw things out the window, like candy. I have a picture of her standing on the corner with our masks. That’s kind of special,” Ezike said.
Ezike said she’s encountered two types of parents. The ones who remain terrified and the others who say, “I’m over this. This is annoying.”
Her response to those naysayers?
“I just tell them, ‘Yeah you’ll never see me or my kids until this is over.’”