For the past two months, as the novel coronavirus silently crept through her city, Lori Lightfoot, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, tried in vain to get the attention of the Trump White House. She wrote letters to President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, pleading with them to coordinate their response efforts with the local leaders who would have to implement their “edicts,” as Lightfoot calls them.
After months of getting no response, and as the number of cases in Chicago climbed, Lightfoot, the first black woman and first openly gay person to lead the nation’s third-largest city, took to the president’s two favorite mediums, TV and Twitter. On the Today show last month, she blasted the president for making statements about the coronavirus that “are not based in fact or science and are just wildly wrong.” On Twitter, she told Trump to “step up and be a leader” or get out of the way.
.@realDonaldTrump, dear Lord—please step up and be a leader. While you have been yammering about hoaxes and fake news, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit all over America. @GovPritzker and others have filled this country’s leadership gap. Lead or get out of their way. https://t.co/36yxpiPS5s
— Mayor Lightfoot #StayHomeSaveLives (@chicagosmayor) March 22, 2020
Back home, her dour-faced admonitions to “stay home, save lives” have become viral meme fodder. Stir-crazy Chicagoans have reimagined her as her city’s omnipresent guardian, a public-health Batman watching over the city and hell-bent on keeping people off the beaches and out of the streets.
Finally, on Sunday evening, Lightfoot and Pence spoke by phone to discuss Chicago’s dire need for more masks and ventilators. On Monday, the state of Illinois reported more than 1,000 new cases, with the death toll at 307 people. Lightfoot’s office described the call with Pence as “cordial,” which is about as polite as the mayor has sounded when talking about the Trump White House and its efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Before her call with Pence, Lightfoot talked to Rolling Stone about what she views as the administration’s flawed response to the virus, how mayors have worked together to get ahead of the crisis, and what she sees on the horizon for Chicago as the pandemic grinds on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you describe your interactions with the White House Coronavirus Task Force so far?
I sent Vice President Pence a letter probably three weeks ago, maybe a little longer, recommending that he convene a group of bipartisan mayors. And not just bipartisan but geographically diverse, and diverse in terms of size. What we’ve been consistently seeing throughout this pandemic is the White House issuing edicts that have to be operationalized at the local level and not being thoughtful about the way in which they’re doing it.
It seems like they’re really clueless about what the realities are on the ground in cities and states. All kinds of towns and localities don’t have large and robust public-health systems and resources like we do. What [the White House] has been doing and not doing has been wreaking havoc at the local level.
What does that dysfunction look like on the ground?
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Back at the end of January, the White House issued a directive that all flights from China were going to be diverted to several airports across the country, including Chicago. That came out on a Friday afternoon. No advance notice. No conversations with any of the airport operators or mayors or authorities that run the airports. We spent a weekend of frustration trying to figure out what that meant.
We were talking to the CDC, Homeland Security, [Health and Human Services]. Not only were we getting different answers depending on who we were talking to within that group of federal authorities, what became clear to me because I organized a call with other mayors that were affected, those mayors were hearing different things from the same entities. Homeland Security would say something to us, and something very different to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and Atlanta. We weren’t getting straight answers from anybody.
That really set the tone for the nonsense that you’ve seen every day since. No plan, no common sense, unwilling to be in collaboration with the local level officials that are really going to bear the brunt of all of these edicts that come from Washington, D.C.
Coming out of that weekend, there was tremendous frustration realizing they weren’t going to help us at all. We have known we can’t depend on the federal government; it would be great if they stepped up and did what needs to be done, but you see it for yourself. There’s no leadership there. The CDC is doing the best job they can in a very difficult environment, but they look to have been muzzled.
And now, the latest nonsense from Jared Kushner and backed up by the president: The [strategic national] stockpile is our stockpile, it’s not for the states. Why is that? It’s because they haven’t prepared.
The obstruction and deflection is to hide the fact that they’re not keeping people safe.
From the vantage point of a big-city mayor, what should the Task Force and the rest of the federal government be doing that they’re not?
Somebody speaking who knows what they’re talking about as the lead voice, number one.
Look at what’s happened in red states and blue states. This isn’t a partisan thing; it shouldn’t be. When you’ve got the governor of Georgia basically saying I’m waiting for word from [Trump] to tell me what I need to do, then and only then am I going to do something. Then you’ve got people when Trump says, “What about this chloroquine thing?” people translate that into something it’s not, take a massive quantity of it, and kill themselves.
We need somebody who is honest. Just tell us the truth. Follow the science, follow the data, tell us the truth. If you don’t have the stockpile, just tell us.
Number three, work with us to strengthen a nationwide network to respond. It doesn’t help us if our neighbors to the west and north and east and south aren’t in unison with us. I don’t know what they’re doing in Iowa. We’re doing all this hard work, making the tough calls, then you’ve got our neighbor to the west who is oblivious that we’re in a nationwide pandemic. That’s where the federal government should step in.
There was a story in the Chicago Sun-Times last week about an employee in the Illinois state government racing down the highway to meet a medical supplier who had a supply of masks. She gave the supplier a $3.4 million check in a McDonald’s parking lot. That’s just crazy to me.
I don’t know if you’ve been to a market in a third-world country. You get off your tour bus, everybody’s trying to sell you something — this is the reverse of that. You’re desperate to find a source. They’re like, “I’ll give you that, but you’ve got to pay upfront, in cash.” It’s happened because our federal government was not prepared.
You’ve brought together mayors of both parties to grapple with this crisis. In what ways has that helped?
It’s been a real godsend. There’s no playbook for how to be a mayor in a pandemic. A lot of mayors across the country have been through hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, but nobody’s been through anything like this.
It hit the coasts first. I’ve got very good relationships with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and being able to see what they are experiencing, what they’re doing, steps they’re taking. Getting to ask them: What do you wish you had known then that you now know? Being able to share that, and then also using that knowledge to get ahead of the game here.
The practical reality is, when you’re a mayor, you can’t sit back and wait. Our constituents want us to act now. One of the other things we’re doing is bringing it back to geography. The disease doesn’t discriminate on the basis of geography. We’ve got people that go back and forth between the city and the suburbs to work. Thinking we can just do something in Chicago and not have to worry about the suburbs is foolish. We have been working on a regional “Stay home, save lives” plan. Chicago has a lot of resources that some mayors in small towns don’t have, but they are impacted by us and vice versa.
What do the next few weeks look like in Chicago? How do they play out if your mitigation plans go well?
The way this disease works, you implement a strategy and then there’s a little bit of a lag to see results. The statewide stay-at-home order was implemented on March 16, and we’re starting to see the results now. I’m hesitant to go further than that because a couple of days is not a trend, but you’ve got to keep looking at the longer game and then implementing as soon as you can.
We’re looking at things across the world that other cities and countries have done. And the reality is there are certain things we’re not gonna do here because we’re a democracy, not an authoritarian country. Given the realities of who we are as a people, we’ve got to hammer away at “Stay home, save lives” and educate people about the power they have in their individual hands to keep themselves and their communities safe.
This is a virus like no other where the actions of one affect the actions of many. The people who were health-challenged before this pandemic are even more so now. So if you didn’t have access to good care before, if you had a host of underlying conditions, you are the most vulnerable, no doubt about it.