Both Oak Park and River Forest villages have made emergency declarations in light of COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus, and the rapidly changing challenges associated with it. 

In an emergency meeting Friday morning, March 13, Oak Park village board voted unanimously to declare a local public health emergency. 

“These are unprecedented times, not just for Oak Park and for our country, but for the world,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb during the emergency meeting. “Coronavirus first is a health crisis, but it’s also an economic crisis. Both can have devasting effects on our families, on our businesses and our communities.”

The quickly escalating COVID-19 situation has prompted schools, libraries, parks and other institutions throughout the country to close temporarily. Many businesses have limited operations, while people practice “social distancing” to avoid contact with the virus. Those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are being ordered to self-quarantine.

“Every day that goes by without us taking certain measures to stop the spreading of the virus is a day lost in winning the war – yes, winning the war – against this invisible enemy,” Abu-Taleb said.

The mayor continued, saying that acting fast now could prevent or delay thousands of infections. 

“We need to protect the most vulnerable,” he said. 

Similarly, River Forest President Cathy Adduci declared a state of emergency at a special village board meeting early Monday, March 16 after being given the right to do so through trustee vote.

In a press release issued March 16, Adduci wrote, “A village-declared state of emergency gives my office certain abilities and powers to issue executive orders to help the village respond to issues of village concern more quickly and effectively.”

River Forest Village Attorney Greg Smith said giving the village president authority to act independently provides “flexibility of action,” which is restricted when village board approval is needed. 

An example of “flexibility of action” includes purchases of goods or services over $25,000, which normally need board approval. Adduci now has the power to make such purchases if necessary and with needed celerity.

Once declared, the village president can rescind the state of emergency; otherwise, state of emergency status expires at the next special or regularly scheduled village board meeting. 

 “I appreciate the trust you have given me,” said Adduci to the trustees.

Coronavirus poses the highest risk to older adults and people with chronic medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The state of Illinois and Cook County have also issued emergency proclamations concerning the virus.

Adduci announced at the March 16 meeting that River Forest will hire someone to coordinate senior outreach for the next four to eight weeks to ensure older community members have everything they need during the coronavirus crisis. 

During the March 13 meeting, Oak Park Village Manager Cara Pavlicek told the board that village staff, as of March 3, has implemented organizational and operational changes in concurrence with CDC guidelines. 

“We are slowing and suspending nonessential activities with a focus on operations that do not support the public health department’s work related to COVID-19,” Pavlicek said.

Oak Park has suspended shutting the water off for those who have not paid bills. 

“We believe the delivery of safe drinking water an important aspect to public health,” she said. 

According to Pavlicek, the village of Oak Park has been increasingly canceling meetings deemed inessential. The village is also deferring administrative adjudication processes, which includes that of contested parking tickets. 

 Oak Park has also put in processes reflective of CDC guidelines and recognizes that many members of staff have children at home because of school closures. 

Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison St., only opened March 16 for early voting and was closed to the public March 17 and 18 to properly clean and sanitize commonly touched surfaces and high traffic areas.

“We will also make sure those employees are made whole in terms of wages if there are specific absences related to COVID-19,” Pavlicek said.

Law enforcement and fire department, as well as the public works and public health departments, will continue their services during the declared public health emergency. 

According to Oak Park Fire Chief Tom Ebsen, the fire department started preemptively ordering extra supplies over a month ago to bolster its preparedness in case of emergency.

“We’re in good shape for what we need right now,” he said.

The fire department is also assigning personnel to work with the health department to assist in keeping the public safe.

“We have a paramedic assigned as an infectious disease coordinator. We have really good internal structure to deal with this and we have taken steps to control what we can in our buildings,” Ebsen said. 

The fire department has temporarily canceled CPR classes and tours. They will resume as soon as possible. 

“I am very confident that the village has an excellent team that is going to make decisions based on evidence,” said Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds. “You have a very cohesive, informed team that’s going to do the what’s right for Oak Park.” 

Reynolds also said that the police department will consider every opportunity to make things go smoothly for all Oak Park residents.

Oak Park Public Works Director John Wielebnicki said the public works department is limiting its interactions with the public as a safety precaution. He also encouraged people to continue drinking tap water. 

“The water is safe to drink. There have been no reports of COVID-19 in the water,” Wielebnicki said.

Oak Park is also working with Housing Forward to protect people experiencing homelessness from virus exposure. 

“This COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving,” said Oak Park Public Health Director Mike Charley. “Everyone in the public health department and everyone in the village is paying close attention to what is happening from day to day, hour to hour.”

While Oak Park has had zero confirmed cases of coronavirus, six residents have tested for COVID-19; four have come back negative, while the other two await pending results.

Charley said Oak Park has been preparing to address cases of COVID-19 and taking action to prevent its spread, including the enforcement of a ban on events of 1,000 or more people. 

“We are strongly encouraging that any community events over 250 people or more be canceled or postponed until May 1,” Charley said. 

Charley recommends people contact their primary care providers and urgent care centers if they have symptoms prior to going there. 

“They like to know you’re coming in so they can coordinate receiving you into the facility safely,” he said. 

Charley also instructed people to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and encouraged people to work from home as much as possible. Charley also warned seniors against attending events in group settings.  

“If you’re sick, please stay home,” Charley said. “Don’t go to work.”

Six COVID-19 tests administered in Oak Park

Mike Charley, director of Oak Park’s Department of Public Health, announced in a bulletin at 6 p.m. on March 16 that six COVID-19 tests have been given to Oak Park residents.

The bulletin stated that “the village of Oak Park Department of Public Health has not received any notification of presumptive positive tests for Oak Park residents or individuals in medical care in the village. The village has authorized six COVID-19 tests for Oak Park residents. There have been four negative tests and two tests are still ‘pending’ results.”

The bulletin pointed out that “privacy precludes location information to anyone other than public health officials and first responders.”

The bulletin also reminded citizens of the following: “It is a crime to knowingly spread any false information, or report that a person has contracted COVID-19 disease, on any social media or other public platform under the Illinois Department of Public Health Act or to make a false report regarding the contraction or spread of COVID-19 to any public official under the Illinois Criminal Code.”

Anyone who would like to register for village of Oak Park emergency alerts can go to oak-park.us/news/covid-19-coronavirus-resources.

On March 13, the Oak Park village board declared a public health emergency, authorizing Charley to make “reasonable rules, regulations and orders … as may from time to time be deemed necessary for the preservation and improvement of the public health and for the suppression of disease.”

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