Most Of Chicago Aldermen Report Being Vaccinated As City’s COVID-19 Cases Keep Rising

Chicago aldermen say they’re vaccinated
Alderman Ed Burke, front right, attends the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, April 21, 2021. About 86% of the council told WBEZ they've been vaccinated against COVID-19. Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Chicago Sun-Times via Associated Press Pool
Chicago aldermen say they’re vaccinated
Alderman Ed Burke, front right, attends the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, April 21, 2021. About 86% of the council told WBEZ they've been vaccinated against COVID-19. Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Chicago Sun-Times via Associated Press Pool

Most Of Chicago Aldermen Report Being Vaccinated As City’s COVID-19 Cases Keep Rising

About 86% of Chicago City Council members — or 43 out of 50 — have confirmed they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a WBEZ survey and reporting.

Those who have either not disclosed their vaccination status or who have not been vaccinated are largely made up of the council’s more conservative voting block and a couple members from its Black caucus, though the vast majority of that 20-member group reports being fully vaccinated.

Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, said he is not vaccinated and three others — David Moore, 17th Ward, Ariel Reboyras, 30th Ward, and Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward — refused to answer, with either them or their staff saying it’s personal information. Four members — Greg Mitchell, 7th Ward, Felix Cardona Jr., 31st Ward, Jim Gardiner, 45th Ward, and Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward — did not respond to multiple requests from WBEZ, but Taylor posted a vaccination selfie on social media, and spoke previously to another media outlet about her decision to get the shot.

WBEZ conducted the survey after health experts have for months reiterated the important role local leaders can play in persuading people to get vaccinated, and the results come as COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Chicago and around the state. On Tuesday, the city announced a new mandate, requiring everyone to wear a mask indoors in public spaces regardless of vaccination status starting Friday.

Gov. JB Pritzker last week urged more lawmakers to get vaccinated after a WBEZ report found that vaccine holdouts or non-responders in the Illinois General Assembly represent some of the most under-vaccinated areas of the state.

“Having our elected officials sort of really eager and upfront with the decisions that they’re making, whichever side of that decision it is, has an impact in terms of informing the public discourse and enabling us to have really substantive conversations on the issue,” said Dr. Ali Khan, chief policy officer for IMPACT, a group of doctors and medical professionals that formed out of the pandemic to address COVID-19 policy in Chicago and Illinois.

Enthusiasm — and pushback — from aldermen

The vast majority of the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council were enthusiastic in their responses to the WBEZ survey.

“Hell yes I’ve been vaccinated,” wrote Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th Ward.

Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, said he is vaccinated and that he urges everyone he runs into to get the shot: “Polio was won through vaccines and chicken pox and measles, etc. … Enough with the ignorance.”

“I was never on the fence [about getting the vaccine,] and the reason I got vaccinated is because I didn’t want to die,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward.

Several aldermen expressed frustration with WBEZ for posing the question at all, arguing that their COVID-19 vaccination status is personal information.

Reboyras said it’s “against my religion” to tell a reporter his vaccination status.

Elected officials are routinely required to disclose more personal information — including financial and medical information — to the public than average residents. Aldermen are often the first point of contact for people seeking government aid, which includes access to public health services, Khan pointed out.

“Our aldermen are some of our best examples of public servants on the frontlines at a very hyper-local level of our communities,” Khan said. “I don’t have to agree with your decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate, but as a citizen, I want to know where my leaders stand, and then to be able to understand why they stand where they do.”

The seven aldermen who have not been public about their vaccination status oversee at least one ZIP code with lagging vaccination rates compared to the rest of the city, though many aldermen who’ve been vaccinated also represent ZIP codes with lagging vaccination rates.

Moore, whose chief of staff told WBEZ the alderman will not disclose his vaccination status, oversees two of the top 10 under-vaccinated ZIP codes in the city (Auburn Gresham’s 60620 and Englewood’s 60621), with just 42.1% and 37.6%, respectively, of all residents getting at least one shot. While WBEZ could not find evidence that Moore has publicized whether or not he’s been vaccinated, he does post about vaccination events on social media.

On the other side of the city, Sposato spoke openly about not wanting the shot, though he said he reposts notices on social media about vaccination events. Sposato’s ward includes two ZIP codes (Dunning’s 60634 and 60656 near O’Hare) with vaccination rates below the city average. About 59% and 54% of all residents in those ZIP codes have gotten at least one shot, respectively. Two of the other ZIP codes in his ward are on par with city vaccination rates.

Sposato has multiple sclerosis and said his doctor has advised against getting vaccinated right now. Still, in an interview with WBEZ, the alderman repeated familiar sentiments that many opposed to the vaccine have used to discredit its legitimacy.

“One day they’re saying everyone’s fine with the vaccine and then the next day you’re saying I have to wear a mask [even if I’m vaccinated],” he said, adding he may feel more comfortable once the COVID-19 vaccines receive final approval from the FDA.

Sposato started the conversation with WBEZ by saying he “identifies as a vaccinated person.”

“You can identify as whatever you want these days, can’t you? I identify as a vaccinated person,” the alderman said, appearing to mock those who identify with pronouns different from their biological sex.

He went on to say he facetiously made a fake vaccination card, using an example he found on the internet. He said he did it to push back against businesses requiring proof of vaccination, adding he didn’t think the “card” would ever actually pass as an official document.

Sposato has attended City Council meetings in person, at times taking his mask off on the council floor as many other members have, but said he abides and will continue to abide by COVID-19 safety protocols as long as they don’t include a vaccination mandate.

Mask mandates on the way, but some council members want more

Even as some aldermen push back against publicly saying they’ve been vaccinated or not, there’s been a growing shift in the country toward requiring proof of vaccination, either to attend college, return to work, or go to a rock concert. New York City next month will require patrons to restaurants and gyms, for example, to show they’ve gotten at least one shot.

Public officials in Illinois have so far only mandated vaccines for state public employees and mask mandates for state facilities and public schools. And starting Friday, all Chicagoans will have to wear masks in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

But the city has not yet gone so far as to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or weekly testing for municipal employees, even as other major cities have. Los Angeles on Wednesday approved a measure that will require city employees to get vaccinated, without the option to provide a negative COVID-19 test instead.

On Wednesday, the mayor’s office praised the results of WBEZ’s survey that showed most aldermen say they’re vaccinated.

“Aldermen have taken a leading role in working with their communities throughout the pandemic in promoting vaccination and coordinating local vaccine events, and have been in constant contact with the Chicago Department of Public Health on COVID-19 guidance,” the mayor’s office said in response to WBEZ’s survey. “We’re pleased that most aldermen, as community leaders, have decided to get this lifesaving vaccine, although at this point it is not a requirement.”

Back in late April, the City Council held their first in-person meeting in more than a year. The rules at the time required aldermen and others in attendance to be vaccinated or obtain a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of the meeting.

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, who said he is vaccinated, wants to see a vaccine mandate for the City Council going forward.

“Vaccine mandates are coming,” Hopkins said. “It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing. And those of us who believe in them, at some point, are just going to have to prevail over those of us who, for whatever reasons, are fighting against this very common sense public health protection.”

WBEZ also asked aldermen whether they’d contracted COVID-19, and just two reported they had, though others have previously said publicly that they’ve contracted the virus.

In an interview with WBEZ, Ald. Samantha Nugent, 39th Ward, said she contracted the virus last summer, with mild symptoms, but still hasn’t gained back her sense of smell. She was vaccinated in February of this year, but said contracting COVID-19 didn’t influence her decision.

“I trust the science,” Nugent said. “When I’m looking to get the roof repaired in my house, I don’t call the plumber. And the subject matter experts that I believe in said this is the appropriate thing to do and I trust that and I trust the science.”

Becky Vevea contributed reporting. She and Mariah Woelfel cover Chicago city government for WBEZ. You can follow them at @MariahWoelfel and @BeckyVevea.