Remember the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? It was March 2020. Back then, our local government officials held press conferences seemingly every day, schools closed and, even during rush hour, the Chicago streets were barren because the safest thing anyone could do was stay in the crib. It was DEFCON 1. COVID-19 had us shook to the core, and for good reason. Up to that point, all anyone in the world knew for certain was that COVID-19 was airborne and that it was killing people. By the end of March 2020, the virus was claiming more than 4,000 lives a day worldwide.

Nonetheless, our instructions from every public health official — from Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Anthony Fauci to Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady were pretty simple: don’t leave the house unless absolutely critical, wear a face covering if you do, wash your hands until you could damn near see through them, and take off your outside clothes before lounging around the house. Remember some of us were even rocking eye protection too? Wild times when you look back on it today.

March 19, 2022 will mark the two-year anniversary of the first stay-at-home order handed down by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Yet, somehow, dealing with COVID-19 today is more complicated than ever before. That’s because, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were a united front of people fearing for our lives but with a primary goal of eradicating the virus. 

Today, that united front has retreated back to its socio-political factions despite us losing nearly six million friends, family and loved ones to the virus to date. Some people still are refusing to get vaccinated. Some still are spouting conspiracy theories about COVID-19 being fake. Meanwhile, others are feeling uncomfortable with the latest removal of the local mask and vaccination mandates, alongside an information gap that’s becoming more exacerbated by government officials wavering on recovery goals and over-complicated data. 

The question wracking everyone’s minds is: What do we do now?

On Feb. 28, the day Chicago lifted its COVID-19 mitigations, The TRiiBE spoke with Dr. Erica Taylor to help us answer that question. She’s the CDPH medical director for congregate settings.


During our conversation, Taylor spoke about what goes into making decisions about safety mandates, why it’s still important to get vaccinated and building trust between the CDPH and Black Chicagoans.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown us that we need to be adaptable,” Taylor said in response to our question about why people should continue to follow the lead of CDPH despite failures in communicating with Black Chicagoans about the virus, a rough vaccine rollout in 2021, and handing down mandates that seem contradictory to their stated goals.

“This is a disease that we didn’t know a lot about before last year, so the information is constantly evolving,” Taylor continued. “And with that, we can see changes in regards to some of the guidelines around it.”

The most recent guideline change that we’ve been asked to adapt to is the removal of the mask and vaccine mandates. As of Feb. 28, the date of our interview, Chicagoans are no longer required to wear masks indoors or show proof of vaccination to enter public places. It’s a move that directly contradicts one of CDPH’s primary goals: to get people vaccinated.

How could Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CDPH put such a concerted effort behind getting people vaccinated while also removing the proof of vaccination mandate which was implemented on Jan. 3 — during the height of the omicron variant — to encourage people to do so?

“Despite individuals not being vaccinated, we are still seeing an overall decline in the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations,” Taylor said. “Just because we’re lifting this mask mandate and lifting the vaccine mandate, that’s not saying, ‘don’t get vaccinated.’ We still feel like getting vaccinated is going to be the best tool to fight against this virus.”

An image of Dr. Erica Taylor, the medical director for congregate settings for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Photo courtesy of the CDPH

Even in the face of a current decline in cases after the omicron variant, the idea of telling people it’s important for your health and safety to get vaccinated, but not important enough for city officials to maintain health and safety mandates until the virus is eradicated, is a contradiction. But the city’s removal of the mask and vaccination mandates does start making sense when you look at it from a financial perspective. 

To understand, look no further than this letter signed by 11 members of the Chicago City Council on Feb. 9, asking CDPH commissioner Arwady for a reversal of the vaccination mandate by Feb. 11. At the time, the city’s case positivity rate was down from a high of 20% during omicron’s peak to 3%, according to CDPH

“The science tells us it is time to loosen the regulations that crippled both virus and business alike,” the alderpeople’s statement read. “Restaurants and bars have been crushed by the mask and vaccine mandates. The numbers prove we are no longer in an emergency as positivity rates are close to where Chicago was at the start of last year’s Lollapalooza.”


Ah yes, last year’s Lollapalooza: the largest non-super spreader event on record. 

Lolla 2021 took place under pretty similar circumstances to the ones we’re currently living in. The CDC had announced on May 13, 2021 that mask wearing was no longer necessary for the fully vaccinated in any setting, and Chicago began its first trial of a soft reopening from May to August that year. Masks were optional and vaccination wasn’t required to do most anything. 

That August eventually became characterized by an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant.

Fourteen days after the first day of Lolla 2021, Arwady said in a tweet that there were “no unexpected findings at this point and NO evidence at this point of ‘super-spreader’ event or substantial impact to Chicago’s COVID-19 epidemiology.”

Chicago’s daily average for cases rose nearly 40% in the weeks after Lollapalooza 2021. By Aug. 17, the CDPH announced that “all individuals aged 2 and over, regardless of their vaccination status, will be required to wear a mask as of Friday, August 20, while indoors in public settings.” 

How could a gathering of more than 380,000 people from around the world — that had more than 200 attendees get the virus — not be considered a superspreader event? 

At first, it was difficult to understand why the city would authorize such a massive, densely-populated event to occur in the middle of a nationwide push to get people vaccinated instead of canceling the event to protect people from the virus especially when, for context, smaller festivals like the Chosen Few Picnic, and Hyde Park Summer Fest took it upon themselves to cancel their festivities scheduled for July and August that year. Apparently, there are 305 million reasons why

While Lollapalooza 2022 is months away, we’re only a couple weeks away from St. Patrick’s Day weekend, when Americans spend about $6 billion a year celebrating. It’s also one of the most lucrative days of the year for Chicago bars and clubs. When asked whether financial incentives factor into CDPH decisions around public health safety, Taylor said there is no economic influence on the COVID-19 mandates that CDPH chooses to enforce or repeal.

“We’re looking at the overall health of Chicagoans. Just following those metrics of test positivity, cases per day, hospitalization and the number of people who are in the ICU,” she said. “The thought was that, when we have at least three out of four of those metrics in the low transmission risk area, then we would release the mandate.”

And Chicago made that benchmark with 1.5% test positivity, 239 non-ICU COVID hospitalizations, and another 80 COVID patients in ICU beds across the city at the time the mandate removal was announced on Feb. 28. 

One of the most critical points made in our conversation was about establishing trust between the CDPH and Black Chicagoans. Black people have been historically violated by the medical community in instances such as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis from 1932 to 1972, and the “Mississippi Appendectomies” of the 20th century, when Black women who thought they were going under anesthesia to get their appendix removed were given involuntary hysterectomies. 

When you factor in the current reality of Black women being three times more likely to die during childbirth, and 40% of medical trainees believing myths of Black people having a higher pain tolerance, it’s an uphill battle for Black people to consider any public health entity to be considered inherently benevolent.

“I think it’s really important that the government and the medical community really acknowledge these past transgressions in order for us to move forward,” Taylor said.


She talked about the efforts CDPH has made throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize the safety and health of Black Chicagoans. In 2020, the city established the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT) which was created to address the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Chicago’s Black communities. In 2021, the city implemented the Protect Chicago At Home, which brings vaccines and booster shots right to your home and includes a $50 gift card for each shot ordered through the service.

“When we go out and speak to people, the main theme that I’ve been seeing is that they would like to have more communication [with CDPH],” she said. “They really like having a forum where they have the opportunity to get their questions answered.”

So what then is the answer to that big burning question: What do we do now?

The simple answer is to get vaccinated and get boosted. According to Taylor, that’s the best chance you’ve got at protecting yourself.

But there’s another answer that Taylor gave that does a much better job of encapsulating the city’s outlook on the pandemic, and that is to be adaptable. 

In order for Chicago to overcome this virus, we need a full commitment from our government to prioritize the health and safety of citizens, which would need to look a lot like the start of the pandemic. 

But if that isn’t going to happen — and let’s be honest, most people would much rather take the risk than go back into lockdown — then we’ve all gotta accept that the government’s vacillation between surge and recovery is our way of life from now on. 

We have no choice but to adapt.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.
is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE.