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The Daily recounts two years of COVID-19 policy in Evanston

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For the first time since 2020, Evanston residents have the option to shop and attend school entirely maskless.

Today’s conditions are the result of over two years of drastic changes in public policy. As COVID-19 infection rates fluctuate, the city has sought to balance protecting citizens from the virus, supplementing revenue losses and rehabilitating the local economy. 

The Daily took a look back at the public policy changes that have shaped Evanston’s COVID-19 response from March 2020 to now.

March 2020: Renters call for protection

Passed shortly after Gov. JB Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order on March 20, Illinois’ eviction moratorium prevented landlords from evicting residents if they were unable to pay rent. The state’s moratorium came in response to Illinois residents voicing concerns about their abilities to afford rent amid pandemic-related salary reductions and mass layoffs. It ultimately expired in October 2021.

Evanston residents also petitioned for rent freezes, which would have prevented landlords from raising rent rates. Though Illinois had a longstanding ban on local governments enforcing rent control policies, State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-39th) introduced an amendment in April 2021 enabling municipalities to enact rent controls if local voters approved. The bill is now in discussion with the House Rules Committee.

March 2020: E-learning begins in Evanston

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School/District 202 abruptly shifted to online learning in March 2020. 

ETHS continued remote learning for most of the 2020-21 school year, switching to a hybrid model and returning to in-person teaching in April 2021. D65 brought Pre-K through fifth grade students back for hybrid learning in February 2021, allowing for both in-person and virtual options. The decision to return divided parents, teachers and students, many of whom cited safety concerns about sending their children to school after nearly a year at home. 

While ETHS and District 65 returned in person for the 2021-22 school year, they briefly returned to online learning following a surge in cases in December 2021 due to the omicron variant. Now, with students back in person for the spring and mask-optional in classrooms, District 65 and ETHS continue to monitor conditions to protect children and families with weekly testing. 

December 2020: City budget suffers losses

A city typically reliant on shoppers and visitors to boost revenue, Evanston suffered financially during 2020. Without major income from sales taxes, hotel taxes, parking tickets and recreation program fees, the city lost nearly $11.6 million in revenue during the fiscal year.

To offset these losses, the city laid off eight full-time workers, furloughed employees and instituted a hiring freeze on non-essential employees. Though the 2021 city budget included more layoffs, revenues have since increased and the city budget has largely recovered.

December 2020: Evanston reflects on business closures

Andy’s Frozen Custard, Barnes & Noble, Burger King, Century 12 movie theatre, La Macchina Cafe, Panera Bread, Unicorn Cafe, Whiskey Thief Tavern – the list of Evanston businesses that have closed since the start of the pandemic goes on. 

The Daily reported in 2020 that over 70 of the city’s businesses closed in the first year of the pandemic alone, bringing drastic changes to the city’s commerce areas. Throughout 2020, local business owners struggled with an economic recession, shuttered storefronts and competition from larger online businesses like Amazon as some residents opted out of shopping in-person.

Though the city created several recovery funds for businesses, Evanston still struggles to bring back storefronts and shoppers. The city’s Economic Development Committee is now working on attracting office tenants to boost daytime worker traffic to the downtown area.

March 2021: American Rescue Plan Act spurs recovery

Enacted by the federal government in March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act is a $1.9 trillion federal plan designed to help state and local governments, among other institutions, financially recover from the pandemic. Evanston received approximately $43 million in ARPA funds to offset economic losses, fulfill public health needs and establish a recovery plan.

The city received half of the funds in May 2021, with the second half coming in May 2022. City government will have until December 2024 to designate which civic projects will receive ARPA funds.

Councilmembers have already used ARPA funds to provide masks, vaccination and testing sites for residents. Some funding has also been allocated to longer-term projects, including the Climate Action and Resilience Plan. CARP has set a goal for city operations to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

City Council continues to debate how to allocate these funds, which has sparked some controversy over which projects should be prioritized. Approved last month, the city’s ARPA funding plan outlines several fund categories, including public health, infrastructure and revenue replacement. 

May 2021: Council opens discussion on hazard pay

Last May, Ald. Devon Reid (8th) proposed an ordinance calling for Evanston to issue additional payments to grocery chain employees who worked during the peak of the pandemic. Workers would receive an additional $6 for every hour worked during Phases 1 through 3 of the state’s Restore Illinois program, and $3.50 for every hour worked through Phase 4. 

While City Council initially voted to move the ordinance forward, some councilmembers and business owners raised concerns that providing hazard pay would place financial burden on city businesses.

In June 2021, City Council failed to pass the proposed ordinance, a decision Reid later attributed to low citywide COVID-19 positivity rates at the time.

Councilmembers revived the ordinance again this January, and the Economic Development Committee is now discussing it for public review at a future session of city council.

Present day: Vaccines facilitate reopening

As vaccines and boosters became available throughout the last year, Evanston and Chicago residents scrambled to find local vaccination sites. 

When infection rates climbed again in December 2021 with the onset of the omicron variant, the city instituted a vaccination mandate for indoor dining sites and encouraged people to continue getting vaccinated and boosted. 

In February, the city lifted its mask and vaccine mandate in accordance with state guidelines, citing a trend in decreasing COVID-19 cases. While school districts and some local businesses are still encouraging patrons and students to mask, the city is proceeding with its optional policy as infection rates decline. 

Today, 97.1% of Evanston residents over the age of 5 have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, with 87.7% of the city being fully vaccinated. With two years of pandemic policy growth behind it, city leaders and officials are looking toward the future, working towards economic recovery while prioritizing community health.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

Related Stories:

Evanston COVID-19 average positivity rate reaches lowest since July 2021

City to lift mask and vaccine mandate Monday in accordance with state timeline

ETHS to offer mask choice for students and staff starting Feb. 28





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