Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot On Her Pandemic Year: ‘Every Decision Was Hard’

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 4. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 4. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot On Her Pandemic Year: ‘Every Decision Was Hard’

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Chicago and Illinois, Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke with WBEZ about how she has managed through the crisis, the criticism she’s faced for some of her pandemic decisions and her intention to bring all of Chicago Public Schools’ students back to in-person school in the fall.

The following is a transcript of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

What was going through your mind during the earliest days of the pandemic, before any of us knew what we were in for? Take us to the moment when you realized this was a pandemic that was going to change life as we know it.

I think where that really was driven home was with the federal government’s first travel order. That is really consequential because we were still still learning a lot about the virus and its consequences. But you are getting a sense of rising panic and fear here in the United States.

But what I also know from that experience was that we were going to have to handle this at the local level, pretty much on our own. The federal government’s handling of that travel order was really, probably the most charitable thing I can say was that it was incredibly competent.

We needed federal leadership, and we didn’t get it. And so at that moment, that’s really what kind of galvanized a lot of the mayors across the country. I remember organizing a conference call amongst the mayors and various localities that were going to be impacted by this travel order. And it was clear, we had to figure this all out on our own.

We’ve seen you out in public as mayor of Chicago countless times over the last year. But now I’m wondering about how the pandemic affected you personally. … Raising a daughter, you’ve talked about your mother living in a different state. Now, what have you done to manage all that stress?

Well, it hasn’t been easy. What I tried to do, personally, is to make sure that every day, I have some alone private time, where I’m not carrying the burdens of the day front and center with me, easier to say than then to do.

I usually get up pretty early, and just spend time thinking about how I’m going to move through the day, what I expect to happen, which is usually not what happens at all. It’s usually something completely different.

But it’s been challenging for me personally, for us as a family. And my daughter actually has been remarkably resilient. I gotta give her tremendous credit. I think it’s definitely been hard for her. For a lot of young people … school is such a central part of their lives, not only their academic life, but their social lives. And having a physical interaction taken from them has been really hard for her.

We’ve leaned a lot into our friendships. Neither Amy (Lightfoot’s wife) or I have immediate family in Chicago. So our network of friends have really been essential to us and managing, really managing through this.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot listens to a question after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a shelter in place order to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Knowing what you know, now, a year later, tell us something about your handling of the pandemic that you would have done differently. Some of the criticisms you faced were about closing the parks and beaches, while keeping the bars and restaurants and stores open. Is there anything that you would have done differently knowing what you know now?

Well, I think that we took our time to really understand the course of this virus, and to understand the data. The closures, no doubt, whatsoever, saved lives. I don’t have any doubt about that whatsoever.

A hard decision, you mentioned, was closing the lakeshore. That was a very hard decision, because the lakeshore is so important to the health and well-being of our city. But it was very clear to me, after a number of warnings and number of admonitions, people just were not getting it.

I’ve such a clear recollection of coming back from a press conference, having really tried to encourage people strongly to stay off the lakeshore. I looked at the cameras … and it happened to be an unusually warm day. And it was like it was July in 2019, not in the middle of a pandemic. And I knew at that point that I had to take some drastic action. Because talking, cajoling wasn’t going to cut it. People just weren’t listening.

Look, we were in — are facing — a once in a lifetime, global event. We didn’t understand very much of until deep into it. And there’s still a tremendous amount of unknowns. I thank God every day for our public health commissioner, and for a tremendous team, both because they’re such great scientists, and they have the data analytics capabilities to really track this virus and give tremendous advice, but also for their preparation.

Every decision was hard. No decision was perfect. But we were guided by the data and the science from day one. And it served us well.

Speaking of hard decisions and battles, during the pandemic you almost had another teachers’ strike on your watch. And that would have been the second one since you took office, you know, not even two years ago. And for your part, what do you think you need to do to rebuild relationships with teachers and CPS parents, who might be worried about constant labor unrest, especially during this pandemic?

I think that we have to consistently be engaging with our parents and our students. I think we’ve got to get engaged with our parents more consistently, on a range of different issues, and not just in the time of crisis. We’ve got to fill that well of goodwill, in good times, and not just draw upon it in tough times. I think that’s a big lesson learned from this.

And I’ll push back a little bit on your premise, which is that somehow we have bad relations with teachers. I don’t think that that’s entirely accurate. There’s no doubt that there’s a tough relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union. But I put that differently than a relationship with teachers.

… But I’ll go back to my first principles, which is this. There’s no substitute for in-person learning. Too many of our children are not learning well, or at all, in remote learning.

We have a lot of parents who are now extraordinarily enthusiastic about bringing their students back to in person learning opportunities.

But we have a lot of challenges that we’re going to face as a city when it comes to learning for our kids, particularly our most vulnerable students. … We’ve got to set more seats at the table, meaning we’ve got to bring parents and other stakeholders to the table. We’ve got to come to the table in good faith.

Does that table include an elected school board? I know that it’s something that you had campaigned on during the election. But then more recently, you told The New York Times that you don’t think that reopening would have been possible, you know, if that board had existed here in Chicago.

That’s actually not what I said. What I said was, we would not have gotten schools open without my direct involvement. (The New York Times’ story quotes Lightfoot as saying, in part, “We would never have opened without mayoral control.”)

Mayoral involvement matters. And I’m not saying this because of me, I’m saying it because of the gravity of the office, the importance of the office, it makes a difference.

And there is an interdependency financially, between city government and CPS to the tune of almost $500 million a year that we subsidize the teachers’ pensions, and the operations of the school system.

That the Martwick Bill (a failed state bill that would have made school board membership elected in Chicago) which I made no secret, I believe is deeply, deeply flawed. … I think it’s deeply flawed because it doesn’t take into consideration the fact of this substantial financial relationship between city and CPS and but also doesn’t take into consideration, equity.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot provides an update on the city’s response to the coronavirus, including the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, during a a news conference in Chicago, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

Do you think City Hall should have more oversight or control over CPS?

I think that we have to — when we talk about what’s going to be one of the most consequential governance changes for CPS, certainly, since 1995, if not even more, so — there’s a lot of factors that have to go into play and have to be on the table.

And I don’t think all of those factors have been considered with the proposals that have been floated in Springfield. How we’re going to make sure that we have an equity focus, education policy and strategy that can get carried on through multiple years and be executed?

How are we going to make sure, for example, that undocumented individuals in our city also have a seat at that table? The Martwick proposal makes no room for undocumented residents in our city. And yet we know that that’s a substantial portion of a CPS population. So there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered when we think about what is the right governance structure.

… Springfield needs to listen to Chicago.

They need to listen to the people in our neighborhoods, who absolutely want a seat at the table, but want it in a way that isn’t going to disenfranchise their interest.

Is your goal to have Chicago Public Schools be open 100% for in person learning by the fall by the next school year,

Without a doubt. Assuming the public health metrics continue to improve? Absolutely.

I wanted to ask about the current vax rollout. Your administration launched a program called Protect Chicago Plus to get vaccines to Black and Latino communities. And you’re making progress, but white people still far outpace others. Is Protect Chicago Plus enough to fix this problem? And what do you think it’ll take to achieve full vaccine parity?

Look, ultimately, we want to get everyone in Chicago vaccinated, period. But we also know that this virus has disproportionately affected Black and brown Chicagoans because of the historic health inequities that permeate our city.

So our strategy has been about equity, because we believe that in having an equity focused approach, we’re going to get the vaccine to those individuals in those communities that have been the hardest hit, and then thereby really slow the spread of the virus to everyone else.

I do think that we made significant progress. Protect Chicago Plus has absolutely made a difference, but I will take it back to April of last year, when we first announced the creation of the racial equity rapid response team. We did that in reaction to disturbing data around the disproportionate number of deaths that were affecting Black Chicagoans. And then we started to see that same challenge in the Latino community.

That work that was done then to reach into neighborhoods at a hyperlocal level, to make relationships, to educate people to dispel a lot of myths and bring people into health care coverage. That work is really what’s made a lot of difference that we’re seeing now in vaccine acceptance and uptake.

We built that infrastructure to last for the long haul, even post pandemic, to really have a network of community health care supports, that we believe are going to shrink the health care disparities, disparities, the life expectancy disparities, by building these authentic partnerships.

Your predecessor Rahm Emanuel would love to say that leaders should never let a crisis go to waste. Where do you see opportunities for positive change, you know, that you don’t think would have been possible or necessary before the pandemic?

Well, what I would say is that there are a lot of opportunities, I think, have arisen as a result of this terrible crisis.

We have built very strong, authentic partnerships at the local level that will serve us well, if we tend to them in the way that we have been for years to come. There’s no question about it.

We also have accelerated our efforts to address some of these long standing problems. You know, we put out in the fall of 2019, something called Healthy Chicago 2025. The goal was to really shrink these health care and life expectancy disparities by 2025. Well, guess what, fate had a different plan. And we are working on accelerating those efforts now, as a result of a disparate way in which COVID-19 has impacted communities of color across our city.

We’ve done, I think a lot, is really educating people about the importance of being proactive in tending to their health care, not waiting until they got sick and had to go to the emergency room, but being proactive about it now.

You know, I could go on and on, talking about homelessness and affordable housing, really focusing emphasis on small businesses, and particularly the micro businesses. All of the things that we’ve invested in from top to bottom are issues and challenges that we faced before, but were exacerbated because of the pandemic.

But we took advantage of the opportunities presented to really start building a different kind of Chicago, that is absolutely more equity focused.

Chicago hotels
The newly renamed Hotel 166, located near the Northwestern University Hospital complex is seen 3/23/2020 in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

The pandemic has crushed several sectors of the economy. I know downtown office buildings are vacant, stores are leaving the Mag Mile, hotels are empty. How will this impact the city’s future in terms of … doing the next two budgets, getting revenue in? Should residents prepare for very lean years ahead?

So thanks for ending on such a cheery note. Look, our recovery has been front and center, really, since the very beginning of the pandemic. I assembled my team in April of last year to talk about what recovery would look like, we were the first major city in the country to release a fully thought out written plan for recovery, which we are executing on now.

So recovery has really been a big part of our pandemic response. And obviously, there are parts of our economy that are still really struggling, and you’ve named a few of them. Hospitality certainly has been hard hit. Retail, which was really struggling and evolving into a new form, pre-pandemic. A lot of those challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

I do believe that government can and must be a stimulus for economic growth, we have got to continue focusing on and we’re doing a lot of that work right now.

I want to make sure that when we talk about recovery, we’re also talking about recovery for our children and our young people. Recovery has to be looked at through a frame of not just dollars and cents in the economy, but how we recover as a people.

Every single person in this city is covered is carrying a burden that they weren’t carrying a year ago because of COVID-19. And I think our challenge, but also our opportunity, is how do we help lessen that burden? How do we give our residents the tools that they need to be able to get on the other side of the troubles and the challenges that they’ve been facing?

Anything else that you wanted to add?

I would just say that, for me, one of the toughest challenges, but one of the absolute necessities, is to keep inspiring hope. And not just me personally inspiring hope in our city. Oh, that’s important, but really uplifting the stories of incredible resiliency, other people in the city, and the way that folks have just rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work and helping their neighbors and pretty remarkable ways.

We may not ever capture all those stories, but there are so many and we encourage people to share them and continue to look out for each other as neighbors.

Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.