For the first time in more than a year, Oak Park will no longer be operating under a declaration of a public health emergency. As of June 15, the declaration will finally come to an end, and along with it, the broadened authority it afforded certain members of village staff.
“Our intention is that we don’t need to ask to continue the emergency declaration,” Village Manager Cara Pavlicek told Wednesday Journal.
Prompted by COVID-19, the village board first enacted the declaration during an emergency meeting March 13, 2020. As the virus continued its assault, the declaration was reinstated several times, remaining active long after its original expiration date of April 6, 2020.
“It really allowed us, both the village manager as well as the department directors, to address the fluidity of the pandemic in a more responsive way,” she said.
The emergency declaration provided the public health director power to issue public health orders, which became crucial in managing outbreaks at assisted living and nursing home facilities as COVID-19 poses a very high risk to elderly people before the arrival of vaccines.
Ahead of the declaration’s expiration, the village board voted June 14 to allow the public health director to maintain the ability to promulgate guidance and orders related to the pandemic through Nov. 15.
“Let’s say we reverse course and there is an outbreak [in nursing homes], we would want the public health director to immediately issue certain rules,” Pavlicek said in an interview with Wednesday Journal prior to Monday’s board meeting.
Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder told the village board June 14 that more than 40 percent of the local population remains unvaccinated.
The extended authority allows Chapple-McGruder to expeditiously disseminate and issue information in the event of an outbreak or expansion of vaccination efforts.
Under the emergency declaration, the village manager had the authority to make purchases and enter into contracts pertaining to the emergency without having to seek approval from the village board beforehand. In normal circumstances, the village manager cannot make expenditures over $25,000 without the express permission of the village board.
Having this ability, according to Pavlicek, proved useful in procuring with speed equipment needed to adequately respond to the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation. Such purchases authorized by the village manager under the emergency declaration included buying freezer chests last November for vaccine storage, which cost $4,240.
“The freezers themselves were not that bad,” she said. “But then what we also had to, because of the temperature requirements for the different vaccines, we supplemented with dry ice.”
The village of Oak Park’s public works department entered into a supply agreement with a vendor that provided dry ice on a regular basis without having to worry about the cost exceeding $25,000. To date, Oak Park has spent $1,550 on dry ice.
“With the emergency declaration in place, we could just make the decision,” she said.
Several expenditures surpassing that limit were made under the declaration, according to Pavlicek, including paying overtime owed to firefighters due to the increased number of ambulance calls and electric work done to prepare the Public Works Department for the more than 45 drive-thru vaccination sites. The cost of the electric work amounted to $28,500.
The village was also able to help restaurants last summer during the ban on indoor dining by allowing them to put seating and tables on sidewalks, in alleyways and in parking areas.
“Leases of village property, without the emergency declaration, have to go to the village board for approval,” said Pavlicek.
Village Attorney Paul Stephanides added specific language to the emergency declaration to give the village the freedom to grant requests from restaurants looking to increase dining opportunities outdoors.
Given the time of year, having that ability is no longer vital, according to Pavlicek, as the village has already processed outdoor dining requests from restaurants for this summer. State-mandated capacity limits have been rescinded as well, meaning restaurants can serve customers indoors and at the same volumes as before COVID-19.
With these developments, an end to the pandemic feels imminent.
“I think it’s a little bit hard when we’ve been so close to it for so long, to not be incredibly nervous and cautious still,” said Pavlicek. “I’m starting to get to the point where I believe that this is really nearing an end and that we’re in good shape.”