KANKAKEE — Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong may have never pounded any steel beams into the ground or poured any concrete, but bridge building will be the focus of her re-election campaign.
Community bridges. Racial bridges. Economic bridges. Not those of steel, concrete and rebar, that is.
In the late afternoon on a humid Thursday at Bird Park near the banks of the Kankakee River, Wells-Armstrong, the city’s first African-American mayor and only the second woman to hold the office, announced the start to her re-election campaign.
“This is the next big step in our movement,” she proclaimed before a crowd of about 75.
“... Together, we will move Kankakee forward.”
Kankakee Forward has been the theme of the Wells-Armstrong administration since its early days. The theme encompasses new ways of doing business as well as new, bold ideas, such as the plans for the Riverfront development along a 4-mile stretch of the Kankakee River between South Schuyler Avenue to the Riverside Medical Center campus.
But much of her address delivered to family, friends and supporters on this late August evening focused on building bridges, about bringing a community together in some of the most difficult and challenging times faced in many years.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world and nation as well as the Kankakee community, and racial strife has turned many community’s into battlegrounds, Wells-Armstrong expressed hope that Kankakee and its diverse population will come together and prosper.
Before Wells-Armstrong can move forward on her hopes and plans for Kankakee, she will face two elections — the Feb. 23 Democratic primary where she is being challenged by Angela Shea, a Kankakee school board member. If she gets through that election, she will then square off against a Republican opponent in the April 6 municipal election. To date, Kankakee 6th Ward Alderman Chris Curtis is the only Republican candidate to announce plans on a mayoral run.
While stating certain members of the 14-member Kankakee City Council have not agreed with or supported her initiatives, the mayor said she has remained unwavering in her desire to move Kankakee forward.
“I’ve been thinking a lot of bridge-building this summer,” she said noting the large amount of division within the community and the nation. “It’s so important to be a bridge builder.”
In a community in which physical bridges connecting its many sides and bringing it together as one community, she said that is what she has been attempting since being sworn into office in May 2017.
“We have beautiful bridges in this city,” she said noting there are bridges to new opportunity in every corner of Kankakee. “Let’s build that bridge to a better Kankakee.”
She then proclaimed she was launching her re-election campaign.
She later added, “I work to build bridges, not walls. No matter what [opponents] spend and say, I will keep on fighting every day.”
After her address and greeting many well-wishers, she said it was her mission to embrace people and build relationships.
She said she was not concerned about any opponent. While her opponents have criticized her for pushing people away, she brushed off that attack.
“They don’t know me if they believe I’m a divider,” she said. During her speech launching the new campaign, she noted she wants more attention and more development brought to the city’s north and east sides. She said those areas have for too long been left to feed on leftovers.
She noted everyone benefits when the entire city is lifted.
“It’s very important to build bridges. I’ve done that. I’m here to work with anyone who wants to make Kankakee better.”
Before the mayor took to the microphone, 7th Ward Alderman Carl Brown, the most-senior Kankakee council member, said neither the mayor nor her supporters can afford to rest because a battle lies ahead.
He said the mayor’s leadership is what supporters need to talk about. He said every move the mayor makes is critiqued.
Brown said Wells-Armstrong simply wants the city’s northside to look like every other segment of the community. He said people criticize her supporters and charge they support her because she is a woman or because she is black.
“We stand behind you on this occasion because we believe that leadership with a vision and leadership with a goal and leadership with a plan has no gender and has no color. This is the story that we stand before you tonight to tell.”
Kankakee County Health Department Administrator John Bevis urged residents to comply with the governor’s recent mitigation efforts to control the increase in COVID-19 positive cases.
Bevis spoke Wednesday at the executive committee meeting of the Kankakee County Board in the county building.
“I want to say thank you to everybody for what they have been doing, and we’re asking for your support to continue to do it for another two weeks, for these 14 days,” Bevis said. “Will County is pledging their support to do so. They want to get their numbers back in the black.
“If they do what they need to do and our county, for whatever reasons if people don’t agree and are going to defy the orders and then our numbers go up, then all we’ve done is flipped-flopped the thought of whose fault it is. Will County in two weeks could have the numbers they need to have, and our numbers have gone up. And as result, the governor will make more stringent mitigation factors for us.
“I don’t want that. You don’t want that. I know our community doesn’t want that.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced Tuesday that as of Wednesday, bars and restaurants in this two-county region — known as Region 7 (Kankakee and Will counties) in terms of the COVID-19 mitigation effort — will not be allowed to offer any indoor service.
In addition, outdoor seating will be restricted to tables being at least 6 feet apart and the establishments must close by 11 p.m. The restrictions will be in effect for 14 days. If the positivity rate remains 8 percent or higher after 14 days, more stringent mitigations will be applied, according to state documents.
The enforcement of following the mitigation guidelines has fallen on the health department.
“The mission statement for the health department is to promote, protect and monitor the health of all the citizens of Kankakee County,” Bevis said. “Our No. 1 priority is going to be monitoring the health, and we do that through the contact tracing, and we’ve been doing that from Day One. The second thing is that we’re going to do is promote working with the community partners, and we’ve been doing that from Day One with the healthy business alliance. ... The third thing is protecting the health of the public.”
Bevis said the governor recently created a law within the communicable disease section where he took a “may” and made it a “shall” for health departments and law enforcement to enforce complaints on masking and gathering situations. He said there’s a process once a formal complaint gets made to the health department, it will conduct an investigation.
“If the business is found to be complying, they will receive a notice for their records that the investigation was completed and that they’re complying, we go on and everyone has a great day,” he said. “If the business is not in compliance, the ruling allows us the flexibility to give them a warning in the form of a written notice that you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Here’s what you need to be doing to be complying, and we will give you a time frame in which to make those corrections.”
Bevis said it’s similar to the nuisance compliance that was created in 1985.
“If they don’t voluntarily comply with that notice, then another inspection will take place. They will be given a written warning, possibly asking them to cease and desist their business, possibly asking them to reduce the number of people within the building. If they continue to not comply, they could receive a Class A misdemeanor and be subject to a fine.
“That’s the process. I’ve worked with Nancy Nicholson and Jim Rowe with the State’s Attorney’s office. This is what this law was changed to, two weeks ago. This is what health departments are being asked to do.”
Bevis said he has a staff of just four environmental health inspectors to investigate 650 licensed food facilities. He would rather they be making food inspections to ensure the food is safe to eat.
“If we’re going to be asked to do this [mitigation enforcement], I can’t tell you if we’re going to five complaints or 50 complaints,” Bevis said. “We’re being told we have to investigate them.”
The pandemic’s effect on people’s lives hasn’t slowed, but its effect on the way life is honored after death has shifted slightly back in the direction of normalcy.
In March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limited gatherings to 10 people or fewer, wake and funeral services were no exception. They were restricted to very small, family-only gatherings for several months.
In late June, when all of Illinois shifted to Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan for the state, gatherings of up to 50 were allowed. This meant funeral directors had a bit more flexibility in helping families navigate the loss of a loved one.
Pritzker’s latest restrictions for Kankakee and Will counties have limited meetings, social events and gatherings to 25 people or 25 percent of overall room capacity until the COVID-19 positivity rate improves.
Bill Cotter, owner of Cotter Funeral Home in Momence, said he is glad the situation for grieving families has gotten better.
“A lot of families are more than just 10 people,” he said. “It was tough on us extending that information to the family.”
A 50-person capacity might not be as large as a traditional service, but it takes care of most of the immediate family for many people, he said.
Families also can rotate in groups of people. Additional guests can arrive at the funeral home at staggered times or mingle outside and wait for others to exit.
Cotter suggests families host memorials in a park or other open, outdoor space where social distancing can be maintained if they wish to accommodate more people.
Cotter also noted that the cremation rate has increased during the pandemic, with more families opting to cremate remains instead of having a traditional casket viewing in light of the gathering restrictions.
During the past few months, Cotter has hosted services for people that died in their 80s and 90s with numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren unable to attend. In one instance, a woman was quarantined in Florida and had to livestream services from the cemetery to her phone.
“You were always so apologetic and knew it was completely out of your hands and you couldn’t do anything,” Cotter said. “It was just extremely frustrating.”
Jeff Jones, owner of Jones Funeral Home in Kankakee, said it has been difficult to meet the needs of families during this time, as many have numerous extended family members.
In some cases, families elected to hold a small service around the time of death and planned to have a larger celebration of life later on. Many are still waiting because restrictions are still in place.
“It’s difficult for us to tell a cousin that he can’t attend a funeral service of his loved one because we’re at capacity; that’s been our problem,” Jones said. “It was really difficult when we had 10. Things have eased a little bit, but I don’t know what the future holds for us.”
Jones said staff are cleaning and sanitizing funeral cars and inside the funeral home multiple times per day even when services are not taking place.
Staff are also spending more time talking through situations with families because of all the additional pressures they are facing with the pandemic.
“Our major responsibility is to help families through the loss of a loved one, to try to have some kind of normalcy when their world is turned upside down, but then we’ve got this other thing on top of it that makes it a lot more difficult to get back to normal,” Jones said.
Cotter also said extra sensitivity has been needed while counseling families about their options during this time.
“Unfortunately, a lot of families don’t know what they are able to do, and it’s our job to kind of guide them through,” Cotter said.
Signs are posted in the funeral home informing people of social distancing and face mask requirements, but Cotter said he leaves those decisions up to the families.
In other words, he isn’t breaking up any hugs.
“I’m not going to stand right at the door and say you can’t touch,” Cotter said.
Tim Gernon, president of Clancy-Gernon Funeral Homes in Kankakee County, said that although face masks and capacity limits are legally required, families are asked to govern themselves when it comes to social distancing in the funeral homes.
“We’re not the police department. We’re not going to tell people how to behave, unless they are completely off-the-wall,” Gernon said. “For the most part, people are understanding and cooperating, and it’s been fine.”
Some larger churches have been able to host up to 100 people at a service because their capacity limits are based on percentage of occupancy, while others have opted not to do any funeral services yet out of caution, Gernon said.
“There is no fixed way of doing it,” he said. “It’s just kind of a moving target. You always have to check and see what’s allowed.”
He said funeral homes and cemeteries are slowly moving back toward being able to operate normally, but things were much different in the early days of the pandemic.
At one point, Clancy-Gernon had over 70 postponed or canceled services due to COVID-19. The funeral homes started to catch up on memorial services once gatherings of 50 were allowed.
Gernon said a handful of families waited over three months for restrictions to loosen to be able to host a more traditional service with more people.
With the initial preparation and refrigeration of the remains, he was able to accommodate those families and host an open-casket viewing and services months after their loved one’s death.
In a couple of instances, families of young people who died in accidents held private, family-only gatherings of 50 people. Under normal circumstances, upwards of 500 people might have attended those services.
“You hate to inconvenience families at such a difficult time in their lives,” Gernon said. “But people understand. People are willing to work with you.”