Social distancing protocols limit communication with constituents


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Alderman Eleanor Revelle. Revelle said she’s receiving fewer emails than normal, which she attributed to residents’ preoccupation with the coronavirus.

Eva Herscowitz, Assistant City Editor

With limits on in-person meetings, community events and handshaking, Evanston aldermen are adjusting how they communicate with constituents amid COVID-19.

In addition to attending remote City Council meetings, aldermen are attempting to replicate face-to-face contact while abiding by social distancing protocols. Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) said she’s shifted from in-person ward meetings to communicating via email and phone calls, and added that she’s supporting the 1st Ward by ordering takeout from local restaurants.

Still, some aldermen said it’s easy to feel detached from their communities when all constituent interaction moves online.

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said she’s receiving fewer emails than normal, which she attributed to residents’ preoccupation with the coronavirus. Revelle typically compiles an e-newsletter of 7th Ward news and events. But with ward-specific events canceled or postponed, the city is focused on disseminating weekly, citywide COVID-19 e-newsletters, Revelle said.

To encourage engagement, she said she hopes to hold a virtual ward meeting jointly with Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th), though she acknowledged that as a public official, she feels somewhat “disconnected” during this time of isolation.

“I really wish there were a way to feel more useful,” Revelle said. “Not only to my residents in particular, but in terms of helping the whole community cope. I’m really concerned not only with the current situation, but the city is going to have a huge challenge financially going forward.”

Revelle said she is optimistic the joint meeting will facilitate discussion, but anticipates logistical issues: How will residents ask questions? Are Revelle and Suffredin equipped to answer these questions, or should other city officials be present? With an array of constituent concerns, how do the aldermen select topics of interest to prioritize?

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said his constituents have expressed concerns about food insecurity and financial hardship amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Wilson said much of his outreach happens organically – he often catches up with residents while waiting for the train or answers questions from constituents he runs into while shopping.

Since Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order, Wilson said he’s made a point to proactively touch base with friends and 4th Ward residents. These conversations, he said, range from seeking feedback on compliance with social distancing to checking in on small businesses impacted by the recession.

The city has adjusted local policies to support residents amid the coronavirus outbreak, Wilson said. For example, the city is eliminating nonpayment penalties for certain bills between March 16 and April 30. These bills include water, sewer and sanitation bills; parking and compliance citations; liquor taxes; and amusement taxes. Officials are also not enforcing water service shutoffs and vehicle immobilizations from March 16 through May 16.

Wilson said adapting his usual modes of constituent communication are just one example of how COVID-19 will alter his day-to-day routine.

“I’m an alderman. I’m a lawyer. I’m a father. I’m a member of a community,” Wilson said. “All of these hats that I wear, after this is done, those hats are all going to be a little bit different in some big ways and some subtle ways.”

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