A group of nurses from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago share the moments that have made the long, hard days worth it.
CHICAGO – Dressed in jeans, a striped collared shirt and white sneakers emblazoned with the words MADAM and MAYOR on the heels, the 5-foot former prosecutor grooved to the syncopated beat as the first lyrics rang out: Cash on me, like I hit the lottery.
It’s not the typical image for a big-city mayor. Especially during the COVID-19 era.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday announced Chicago’s first-ever citywide celebration of graduating seniors via a video of herself dancing posted to TikTok – the most recent in a series of viral social media posts that Lightfoot’s office has used to encourage residents to stay home amid the coronavirus outbreak. More than than 22,000 Chicagoans have been infected; 962 have died.
In an exclusive one-on-one interview with USA TODAY, the Chicago mayor talked about the challenges of battling COVID-19 on the political front lines – and her personal experience of the outbreak.
Lightfoot, 57, the Windy City’s first black woman and first openly gay mayor, has gained national attention for effectively shepherding the nation’s third-largest city through the crisis of a generation. Her humor and iron-fisted resolve have provided both welcome levity and comfort for many Chicagoans watching the city’s case count creep upward.
But in a city long dominated by a history of machine politics and mayoral boses, critics warn that Lightfoot is capitalizing on the crisis to consolidate authority at City Hall.
For the new mayor navigating an impossible situation, the outbreak has meant three months of seeing the inequities within her city laid bare. It’s been a crisis colored by loss, resilience and a letter written in orange marker.
“I have a range of emotions,” Lightfoot says. “People are stepping up in really amazing ways . . . But I also recognize that, just as our strength shines through, the vulnerabilities that we all knew about, that we’ve been working on for years – in fact decades – those are also flashing like a neon sign.”
Chicago has been held up as an example of how the outbreak is disproportionately affecting communities of color. The city gained national attention in early April when it reported that more than half of its coronavirus patients and about 70% of COVID-19 deaths were among African Americans, even though black Chicagoans make up just 30% of the city’s population.
At the time, the city didn’t have information about the race or ethnicity of a quarter of all cases. Looking back on the few past months, Lightfoot said that’s among her biggest regrets.
“Understanding the disparate impact is really important,” Lightfoot said. “I wish we had demanded the demographic information compliance sooner.”
For thousands of Chicagoans, those case counts aren’t just statistics – they’re family, friends, nurses, doctors. For Lightfoot, it was a man she had met last year who worked with at-risk youth.
“He had underlying conditions, but nothing particularly serious, and was starting to recover, then literally overnight took a turn for the worst. It was shocking to me,” Lightfoot said. “That he lost his life in that way, it’s very painful.”
Lightfoot said a note that she received from a boy in her neighborhood has been giving her the strength to work through the pain.
“It was a very short, sweet letter, and he basically said he was writing to thank me for what we were doing in the city,” she said. “I’ve been carrying that around because that meant so much to me.”
The humor’s helped, too, Lightfoot said. When the mayor closed down the city’s Lakefront Trail at the end of March, a local graphic artist photoshopped an image of Lightfoot, hands clasped and stony-faced, into a picture of the fenced off trail.
“It really just kind of took off from there,” Lightfoot said. “We just decided to take the moment of humor to really burn in the necessity to stay home and save lives. The level of ingenuity of people in this city really knows no limits. It’s been very fun.”
Memes of Lightfoot standing watch outside houses, perched atop traffic lights, glaring through rear-view mirrors, ordering Jesus back into the cave on Easter and more have circulated online.
An Instagram account called “whereslightfoot” has nearly 60,000 followers. The trend is so popular, it’s become self-referential.
If she had to pick, two memes stand out as favorites, Lightfoot said.
“It was pretty early on, somebody did a Wheel of Fortune that said ‘Stay the F*** Home’ that I still think about and laugh every time. It just caught me and made me laugh,” she said. “I think the one that’s probably truly my favorite, there’s one where – you know the bat signal that beams up with my face? I kind of feel like that. I need to be and hope I am the guardian of this city.”
Critics say they’re getting that message loud and clear. Last week, during a raucous City Council meeting over Zoom – complete with shouting and expletives – aldermen criticized a proposal to grant Lightfoot’s administration emergency powers to make decisions about COVID-related spending. Critics called the move a “power grab” by the mayor, who campaigned on rooting out corruption in City Hall.
The ordinance passed, with 21 of 50 aldermen voting against the measure, including several aldermen representing communities disproportionately affected by the virus.
Democratic Socialist Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa voted against the ordinance, saying that it did not include oversight measures or guarantees that the emergency dollars would be prioritized for hardest hit communities.
“We have been told to trust this mayor,” Ramirez-Rosa said in the meeting. “Here in Chicago, we’ve seen the disastrous effect of when we trust the mayor to be Chicago’s sole decision-maker and authority.”
Echoing a critique of Lightfoot commonly heard amid last fall’s 11-day teacher’s strike, Ramirez-Rosa said that “when it comes to this mayor, you have got to put it in writing.”
“We cannot go back to the times of one mayor overseeing everything and a rubber-stamp council,” said Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez.
As Lightfoot turns her focus toward a gradual reopening of the city, June 1 looms large in her mind. Last week, the mayor put together a team of local officials, business leaders and activists to advise her on plans for recovery.
“First of all, we’re going to be doing a change study. We’re looking at uncovering the effect of COVID across a lot of sectors – economic, but what I call the social fabric, how this has impacted individuals, neighborhoods, communities,” Lightfoot said. “The goal is to have a final report by June 1. So it’s a sprint.”
Lightfoot said that in addition to a focus on policy and economic recovery, the task force plans to have working groups focused on regional cooperation and mental and emotional health. The groups were developing a process to get public feedback, she said.
“We want to think very thoughtfully about what a staged reopening looks like,” she said. “Because it’s not going to look the same as it did in February, pre-COVID. It’s just not. Not until we get a vaccine that’s viable. So it’s turning on the dimmer light and not flipping the switch.”
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