U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush (D-1st) and Robin Kelly (D-2nd) touted federal money for state and local resources in the House-passed HEROES Act while Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to begin negotiations for another round of federal support.
"We are standing at Ground Zero," Durbin said at the Mile Square Health Center, 7037 S. Stony Island Ave., as people entered a tent behind them for coronavirus testing. He observed that a higher percentage of Black Chicagoans in South Shore have COVID-19 than anywhere else in the city, 50% higher than the municipal average.
While he thanked testers and service providers, Durbin said the time has come to trace more contacts of those infected with the coronavirus and isolate those who have been exposed.
"Then we can start talking responsibly and carefully about opening this economy in a thoughtful way," he said. "We don't want to have a second peak come at us that's worse than the first. We don't want to relive what our state and country have been through in the past few months, at the expense of so many innocent people."
With people still dying and the living in need of health care and economic resources, Durbin called on the Senate to pass the House's legislation. While McConnell had told reporters on May 11 that there is no "urgency" for lawmakers to act again against the pandemic, Durbin told the senator to come to South Shore and see "the matter of life and death in this neighborhood."
Rush said he is committed to getting Black Chicagoans testing and access to health care. "There are a lot of people who will come through who might not have COVID-19, but they might have diabetes, or they might have hypertension, or they might have some other major chronic disease. And they need help also," he said.
He went on to push the COVID-19 TRACE Act, which would provide $100 billion for contact tracing, $25 billion more than is in the HEROES Act, with further resources going to local community organizations for on-the-ground testing and tracing. House Democratic leaders did not incorporate the bill into the HEROES Act, but Rush said will continue pushing for the bill. Kelly signed on a co-sponsor later on Friday.
"Only when we get 100,000-180,000 contact tracers on the streets, going door to door, only then can we turn this COVID-19 pandemic around," Rush said.
Kelly, who represents a portion of East Hyde Park in Congress, said her uncle died of COVID-19 earlier this month. "It affects everybody," she said. "I don't think there's a person that we know that doesn't know someone who has lost their life."
"We need to do more," she said. "Too many people of color in particular are getting the disease and dying of the disease. And when we get past this, and we will, that we are really going to shine the light. I am committed to that: to really tackle the social determinants of health."
As it stands, contact tracing funds in the HEROES Act would go to state and municipal health departments. Durbin said the Senate needs to realize that "you can't build a bridge halfway across the river and declare victory."
He said the need for more money is acute well beyond public health measures: "On June 30, the small business loans are going to end. At the end of July, unemployment insurance federal boost of $600 a week will end."
The HEROES Act would additionally provide round of direct cash payments, on top of the $1,200 provided in previous legislation, and measures to combat food insecurity, both of which Durbin endorsed.
"I think there's a sense of urgency here for us to deal with unemployed people with small businesses and with families that are still struggling to make ends meet," Durbin said, expressing hope that the parties could find common ground.
Republican messaging about the HEROES act has been overwhelmingly negative.
"It's no secret that Democrats see coronavirus as an 'opportunity' to push for systematic change, but while American livelihoods are at stake, Democrats are pushing a leftist boondoggle that goes far beyond pandemic relief in the form of the most expensive bill in American history," wrote spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury in a blog post decrying the HEROES Act. "With no substance or Republican input, (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi's 1,800+ page bill is so out of touch, it actually mentions the words 'cannabis' more than 'jobs.'"