For weeks now, Ald. Maria Hadden’s ward office in Rogers Park has been physically closed to the public, but the calls haven’t stopped.
“It’s not like people are still calling me about potholes,” Hadden said. “They’re calling about coronavirus-related fallout.”
Residents in Hadden’s 49th Ward and all across the city now need help filing for unemployment, paying their rent and finding child care as all non-essential business has come grinding to a halt amid the outbreak of COVID-19. The shift in her ward’s concerns from pothole-filling to the pandemic inspired Hadden and others to launch the Rogers Park Community Response Team, which connects people who need help with people who can provide it.
It’s the new reality for Chicago’s 50 aldermen as the city heads into week three of Illinois’ “stay-at-home” order. The neighborhood mini-mayors are leaning into a long-established role of connecting constituents with city services — even while their jobs at City Hall are on pause.
“Responding to service requests … is nothing new,” said Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward. “We just do more of it now.”
Dowell said while a lot of city business remains on hold, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and top city department officials are holding almost daily conference calls with the aldermen to update them on new directives and initiatives, such as the closing of the lakefront and the small business resiliency loan fund.
“We’re focusing more on doing the groundwork of continuing to serve as a liaison between government agencies, nonprofit organizations and community organizations, and the population,” said freshman Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, who represents Albany Park.
Her website, like many other aldermen’s sites, has a section dedicated to coronavirus announcements and resources. Rodriguez Sanchez said they have more than 200 volunteers who are paired up with seniors and other high-risk residents to help them during the “stay-at-home” order.
“We are dividing elderly people in small groups and assigning these small groups of elderly people to one volunteer, so that they can check on them,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. She is also connecting volunteers to a city-wide mutual aid network. (Find out more about what a mutual aid network does here.)
Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, said many elected officials are using tried and true campaign strategies, such as phone banking, to check on residents and connect them with city resources specific to COVID-19. His staff has taken a methodical approach, calling residents from oldest to youngest, taking notes and keeping track of people’s needs.
Vanessa Valentin works for Villegas and has spent most of the last two weeks running errands for people in the Belmont Cragin and Dunning areas, picking up prescriptions and dropping off groceries.
“I got my reusable mask. I got my gloves in the car,” Valentin said. “I have fear … but we got to do it, right? If we all just stay in, then who’s going to help?”
Villegas said when he’s phone banking, people on the other end of the phone often don’t actually need anything. They just want to talk.
But the city hall side of an alderman’s jobs has gotten a lot trickier.
“We’re still figuring out as a council how to have a meeting remotely,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward. “We would have to be able to do all the same kinds of motions and [follow] Roberts Rules [of Order], but also have it stream publicly and allow for public comment.”
Villegas, Lightfoot’s floor leader, says the mayor’s staff and a group of aldermen are testing out more secure technology platforms that would allow them to meet later this month, on April 15, but only to take care of issues that didn’t get resolved in March.
It’s not clear when aldermen will start holding committee meetings to approve incremental matters such as zoning changes and sidewalk permits, or discuss bigger issues, such as having civilian oversight of the police department.
“I think it’s pretty ridiculous that we haven’t been able to have a session to legislate things that are super important for our communities because we can’t be in proximity to one another,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. Maybe after the worst of coronavirus passes, she said, the City Council can find ways to be more efficient and even more bold.
“There will definitely be the possibility of governing in a different way,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “We’re definitely in a perfect moment to reflect on what we believe is possible.”
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.