Cook County: From Rapid Response to Equitable Recovery

Below are my prepared remarks from this morning’s — May 14, 2020 — virtual City Club of Chicago address where I delivered a speech highlighting Cook County’s initial, rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis and the measures needed to ensure an equitable recovery.

Good morning.

This is a challenging moment in history as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic together.

As many have said, this time is not unprecedented. I am a former history teacher, and when I read the news coming from Wuhan, China last winter, I purchased a book on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

It was a sobering warning of what was to come.

I wanted to understand how the world responded to that crisis, what we could do to prepare, and what we could do differently to improve upon that response.

I feared that the public health crisis would also rapidly become an economic crisis. I knew that this virus would require the kind of government response we saw during the Great Depression.

And we are seeing this play out on every level. Our local governments are acting more quickly than ever before. Sweeping stimulus legislation is moving through Congress. I have spent some of my evenings thinking about Franklin and EleanorRoosevelt and the New Deal.

These were big ideas and big plans with an even bigger impact.

But big ideas are not enough.

We have a moral obligation to focus on equity as well.

Our recovery from this pandemic MUST include everyone. It must include those communities that have been impacted the most. It must include our Black and Latinx communities, because we have already seen that with COVID-19, as is true of every other crisis, our Black and brown communities are hit the hardest.

As was true in the 1918 pandemic, the number of infections is staggering. And the unemployment rate is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. The Chicago heat wave of 1995 and the 2008 recession, with the subsequent mortgage crisis, are also more recent lessons to draw from.

In July of 1995, a brutal heat wave killed more than 700 people in Chicago — and most of those deaths were in African Americans. They were communities already devastated by structural racism: redlining, lack of access to healthcare, lack of healthy food and overpolicing. The government was not prepared to respond to that crisis with an equity lens.

In 1995, no one addressed the root causes of inequity that led to those preventable deaths.

We saw something very similar in 2008. The mortgage crisis and Great Recession — what many, naively, called a “once in a generation event” — devastated communities of color throughout the nation.

Here in Cook County, Black families that had spent generations amassing enough wealth to finally own their own homes saw that wealth wiped out in a matter of months. Their homes were foreclosed upon by predatory lenders and their home equity vanished.

Since then, Black homeownership has fallen to the rates we saw in the 1940s. They still have not recovered. In Cook County, however, under my administration, we have worked to mitigate these disastrous events with an equity lens. We launched the Cook County Land Bank Authority which works with community developers to rehab homes and sell them to homeowners at affordable prices, to bring the dream of homeownership back to these devastated communities.

We launched the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, to help residents find jobs that pay a living wage, with career pathways and certifications. We helped homeowners fight foreclosures to give them a chance to save their family homes.

More recently, in 2019 we launched the Southland Development Authority to catalyze growth and investment in the south suburbs, because this part of the County has not recovered from the 2008 recession.
The difference between 1918, 1929, 1995, 2008, and today is that we will not allow government to naively assume everyone will be hit equally hard by this pandemic.

Today, we know that we need to use an equity lens to distribute resources according to need, acknowledge the history of structural racism that led to these health and economic inequities, and listen to what impacted communities really need from us.

We also know that we cannot do this alone. We must partner with other units of government and I want to acknowledge Mayor Lightfoot for her leadership during this pandemic.

We also must partner philanthropic entities, community-based organizations and, private sector companies. We can only get through this with strong partnerships and collaboration, at every level.

If we don’t help our elderly and immune-compromised neighbors get groceries and other essentials, they might not survive.

If we don’t check on our friends, our parents, our coworkers, our congregants — they, too, might not survive. It is not just our academic moral responsibility to care for others — it is a matter of life or death.

During this time of physical distancing and virtual interaction, many of us feel more alone than ever. But know that you are not alone. We are not alone. And Cook County is here to help.

That is why I am proud to release our plan to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, together.

Today, we have published the Cook County COVID-19 Response Plan: From Rapid Response to Equitable Recovery. This plan affirms our commitments, our priorities, and our actions in response to COVID-19, both now and over the next two years.

Our response plan details the actions we have taken since January to respond to the impending crisis. Despite federal inaction, we began preparation in earnest.

Cook County Health and Cook County Department of Public Health:
• prepared for surges in patients
• engaged with community partners to implement public health guidelines
• tested Cook County Health patients and staff
• conducted extensive contact tracing,
• and established a multilingual hotline and email for resident questions and concerns.

Since January, Cook County Health has tested and treated thousands of patients and staff, including patients without the ability to pay, and staff and detainees at the Cook County Jail.

Cook County Health re-structured the Emergency Room at Provident Hospital to enable physical distancing.
They moved services to telehealth to keep patients safe while still serving nearly 1,000 people at the hospital during the ER closure. We deployed additional staff to Stroger Hospital and Cermak Health — the treatment unit at the Jail. And as always, Cook County Health has honored our mission to serve those in need, regardless of ability to pay.

The Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security activated the Emergency Operations Center on March 3. They began immediately coordinating with hospitals, municipalities and first responders throughout Cook County to provide extensive support. They’ve distributed more than 2 million pieces of PPE to first responders, senior living facilities and municipalities.

EMRS worked closely with the Cook County Department of Public Health to launch an Alternative Housing Program for those who did not need hospitalization, but could not safely self-isolate at home.

EMRS also worked closely with the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office to open a surge center and several mobile storage units to ensure that all who succumbed to COVID-19 were treated with utmost dignity and respect, and that their families could have sufficient time to make funeral arrangements.

To repeat the words of our Cook County Medical Examiner — we treat those who come through our doors as if they are our loved ones.

Our Cook County Justice Advisory Council coordinated efforts to safely release more than 27% of the Cook County Jail population from February to May 2020. Jails are petri dishes, and our public health experts told us that detainees could not safely practice social distancing unless the population could be significantly reduced, putting both staff and detainees in grave danger.

Today, the jail population has reached a record low of just over 4,000 — down from almost 11,000 in 2013. We could never have achieved this if we hadn’t worked diligently with our partners through the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge to carefully and sustainably reduce the jail population over the past several years.

We rapidly reduced the jail population by providing extra health and housing supports to all those who were released, to ensure that there was no negative impact on community safety.

Not a single person was turned away who needed housing.

We could not have achieved this without the valiant and dedicated work of Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC), Henry’s Sober Living, New Beginnings and Claudia & Eddie’s Place. I want to thank these partners.

The Bureau of Technology, or BOT as we call it, provided extra telecommunications infrastructure at Cook County Jail so detainees could conduct video visitations after physical distancing policies were enacted.

BOT also provided assistance to enable our Cook County emergency court hearings, and helped Offices Under the President to safely work from home, on a large scale, while still providing vital services online. We were able to keep our employees and the residents we serve, safe, through this measure.

The Bureau of Economic Development rolled out the Community Recovery Initiative, providing an expansive and language-accessible Technical Assistance Network to small businesses, nonprofits and independent contractors. Economic Development also created a new loan fund, as part of this initiative, to provide zero-interest, rapid loans of up to $20,000 to very small businesses and independent contractors.

This technical assistance network was provided in partnership with the American Business Immigration COALITION, the Illinois Restaurant Association, and the National Partnership for New Americans.
The Bureau was able to help 179 businesses access more than $3 million dollars from the Paycheck Protection Program. I also want to thank these important partners for their good work.

The Bureau of Finance deferred $45 million worth of taxes, fines and fees for April, May and June to provide financial relief to businesses and residents.

These are just a few of the major initiatives I wanted to share regarding Cook County’s rapid response to the pandemic. Cook County staff members have been working hard over the past several months to help residents and businesses. They have worked long hours and weekends, many while caring for children and families.

Staff members such as Dan Ryan. Dan is an operating Engineer at our Leighton Courthouse. He has two young daughters with severe heart conditions who are at high risk. He quarantined from his children as he was in contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID. Other than the few days he took off to ensure he was not positive and going to get tested and re-tested, Mr. Ryan continues to come to work every day.

For their safety, he continues to keep his distance from his 6 and 8-year-old daughters — foregoing hugs and other tender moments that make him a doting father.

There’s also William Cantrell — one of the best custodians we have in the County.
Mr. Cantrell routinely offers to help finish other employees’ sections when someone takes the day off. This includes ensuring the Markham Courthouse is not just clean, but also sanitized.

I am grateful for our essential employees such as Mr. Ryan and Mr. Cantrell — and all of our County employees who have gone above and beyond to help in this crisis.

When we think back to 1995, or 2008, what makes our approach today so unique is that each and every agency I have mentioned has used an equitable approach:
• we prioritized PPE requests according to need.
• We prioritized language accessibility.
• There are Sign Language Interpreters at all our press conferences.
• The Public Health hotline is multilingual.
• ALERTCOOK is a texting service to reach those who might not have computers, but still need to hear updates from us.
• We surveyed our community partners and advocates to hear their needs.
• We made sure that our Community Recovery Initiative was open to all, regardless of immigration status, because we are a Welcoming County.
• We prioritized very small businesses and independent contractors with the Community Recovery Initiative. We knew those businesses and gig workers were predominantly minorities — and especially women of color — and that we needed to protect our most vulnerable.

Cook County is taking an equitable approach to our long-term recovery efforts, and we have adopted a new set of principles to guide our work. This work will align with the work already underway through the Policy Roadmap: the Five-Year Strategic Plan for Offices Under the President.

Given the exceptional circumstances in this emergency, we commit to initiatives that:

1. Provide support in areas where Cook County has the authority and resources to have the greatest impact.
2. Prioritize support for Cook County’s most vulnerable populations by using a racial equity lens.
3. Maintain continuity of essential public services for residents and businesses throughout Cook County.
4. Coordinate efforts with other units of government to strategically leverage shared resources.
5. Focus on suburban Cook County, which has substantial needs but limited resources.
Our core values, Equity, Excellence, and Engagement, are centered throughout the Equitable Recovery phase of this plan.

The full plan can be accessed at our website, but I would like to discuss three initiatives today. These initiatives address the root causes of inequity, include our community partners and residents, and ensure that when Cook County recovers from this crisis, we will recover together. Our recovery will encompass everyone — not just those who have the most access to resources.

I spoke about Digital Equity at my last City Club speech at Maggiano’s last September. That seems like very long ago now, and Maggiano’s, like every restaurant in Illinois is closed for dine-in business.

I am grateful that City Club allowed me to virtually re-open their civic engagement platform with this address, I look forward to sharing a comforting plate of Italian food with you all when Maggiano’s can safely reopen.

But this livestream, like so many things these days, is only accessible to you if you have high-speed internet access. It is estimated that one-quarter of our Cook County residents lack high-speed internet, and those rates are much higher for people of color.

While digital equity mattered before, it matters even more now.
Students are languishing at home, unable to complete their homework without laptops, and missing Zoom classes because they don’t have high bandwidth.

Families struggle to apply for unemployment relief because they can’t fill out applications on their phones.

We CANNOT allow a quarter of Cook County to fall further behind as we recover, digitally, during the next phase of this crisis.

That is why we are formally announcing the work of CODE: The Council on Digital Equity. This Cook County initiative has been charged with overseeing our efforts to advance digital equity.

As part of our work to advance digital equity, we are also proud to launch a new open learning platform with the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement. Soon, we will launch a website for all County residents with 6 weeks of engaging lectures. This content will be curated by the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement and made easily available and accessible on a new website. As a UChicago alum, I’m excited about this new educational engagement opportunity for our residents. We are calling the learning platform: Cook County Presents — Open Lectures for Residents: in partnership with The University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement.

I plan to watch more than a few of the lectures myself — especially the American history related lectures!

The second initiative I would like to share is the Fair Transit demonstration project.

While the stay-at-home order has caused transit ridership to fall dramatically, many essential workers have still have to ride public transit to their jobs. Our grocery store workers, pharmacy assistants, nurses, and line cooks need affordable, accessible transit more than ever.

That’s why we are moving forward with the Fair Transit demonstration project. The Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways continues to work with our regional transit partners — Pace, Metra and CTA during this challenging time for Transit. We are advancing this comprehensive initiative to bring affordable, accessible transit to more riders on the south side of Chicago and in the south and southwest suburbs. Many of these riders are the workers we have historically undervalued — until now that is.

And the last initiative I am excited to announce is our new Community Advisory Council. As we have responded to COVID-19, the breakdown in communication — especially on digital platforms — has been highlighted.

Yet, engagement between communities and governments has never been more urgent.

That is why we are launching a Community Advisory Council.

This council will be composed of community leaders and advocates. They will:
• evaluate our efforts according to the COVID-19 Response Plan
• provide feedback from their communities on its effectiveness, existing gaps in service,
• and explore potential areas for partnership.

The Council will also serve as an important conduit back out to their communities to let residents know what Cook County is doing and what resources we can provide.

We also have a feedback form on the website, and would love to hear your thoughts on how we can partner, how we can improve, and how we can add to the plan.

I encourage you to participate in this plan, because we cannot bring full recovery to Cook County without — you.

COVID-19 has shown us that not all heroes wear capes, but make no mistake, they are absolutely all around us. We all must play a role in recovery alongside our everyday heroes.
Our delivery drivers, our postal workers, our transit workers, our grocery store clerks and volunteers at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The Depository is a long time partner I want to especially thank.

And our healthcare workers — like my daughter, a dialysis nurse who is on the front lines of this crisis putting the lives of others above her own. I worry about her and I thank her for her service during this pandemic.

And there are so many more.

Together, we will get through this, as one Cook County.

Thank you.

President of Cook County

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store