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Belmont Cragin, Hermosa

Belmont Cragin Is Facing One Of The Biggest Coronavirus Outbreaks In The City. Is One New Testing Site Enough?

Aldermen are pushing the city to open up church rectories and Downtown hotels to Belmont Cragin residents who need to self-isolate.

Curbside coronavirus testing takes place March 25 at the University of Chicago's Mitchell Hospital, 5841 S. Maryland Ave.
Nancy Wong
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CHICAGO — With coronavirus cases surging to an “unbelievable” level in Belmont Cragin, the city is finally opening a second testing site in the mostly Latino neighborhood.

Belmont Cragin is among a group of predominately Latino Chicago neighborhoods with the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state.

As the numbers of people becoming infected began to surge, area aldermen quickly saw Belmont Cragin couldn’t keep up with the needed testing. They started pushing the mayor’s office to increase testing and treatment in the neighborhood and surrounding communities.

“We’ve been on the phone as a [Latino] caucus for about a week and a half, pretty much screaming and asking for more assistance in Belmont Cragin,” said Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th).

The added testing will help, but local leaders say much more needs to be done to protect Belmont Cragin residents, many of whom are undocumented immigrants and essential workers who live in close quarters.

The needs of the community have ballooned beyond slowing the spread of disease and treating those who are sick. Connecting residents with critical social services is just as paramount, said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th).

“It’s finding any resources related to rent, it’s about food banks, getting some assistance with unemployment, small businesses trying to find out about the [Paycheck Protection] program — you name it, we’re dealing with it,” Villegas said.

Surge In Cases, But Little Testing

Villegas, whose ward includes Belmont Cragin, said the Northwest Side neighborhood is often overlooked when talking about Chicago’s Latino community.

“When people think about Latino communities [in Chicago], traditionally they think of Little Village, Pilsen, but actually Belmont Cragin is home to the largest population of Latinos,” Villegas said.

In recent weeks, Belmont Cragin — home to about 80,000 people — has become one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois, illustrating how much the disease has disproportionately impacted people of color. About 80 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Latino.

The 60639 ZIP code, which includes Belmont Cragin and Hermosa, had 2,124 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data.

That ZIP code had a coronavirus test positivity case rate of 39 percent Thursday, according to the data.

Test positivity measures the proportion of people who are tested for a disease and have contracted it. In other words, more than one in three people tested for COVID-19 in the 60639 ZIP code have coronavirus.

Such a high test positivity rate indicates very few residents are being tested, experts said. The city had a test positivity rate of 24 percent as of Thursday.

Other mostly Latino neighborhoods have been similarly hard-hit.

As of Wednesday, the 60623 ZIP code, which includes Little Village and North Lawndale, led the state with 2,210 coronavirus cases. The 60639 ZIP code, which includes Belmont Cragin, had the second-most cases. Brighton Park, Gage Park and Chicago Lawn are also recording surges.

Yet there are almost no nearby opportunities to get a COVID-19 test in Belmont Cragin. The only testing site in the neighborhood is PCC Salud Family Health Center, 5359 W. Fullerton Ave.

But the clinic has so few resources and so few staffers it’s only testing two hours a day, according to the aldermen. The medical clinic didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

“They only take you if you call. That’s not good enough,” Reboyras said.

“One of my frustrations has been. … trying to figure out how to expand the testing abilities,” Villegas said. “What’s the framework here? What do we need to do as alderman to make the [Federally Qualified Health Centers] have the necessary resources?”

Earlier this week, the city announced a second testing site in Belmont Cragin at Prieto Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave.

By opening the site, city officials are aiming to better track how coronavirus is moving through Chicago and to reach the city’s goal of 4,500 tests a day.

Reboyras, whose ward represents part of Belmont Cragin, said the new testing facility will “help quite a bit.”

“We’re hoping to get at least 3,000 tests done per day at this location,” he said.

Community leaders said while more testing will be crucial, it’s just one part of what should be a larger collaborative effort to protect Belmont Cragin residents from infection and from financial and emotional ruin.

‘Imagine A Dam And You’re Trying To Put Your Fingers Where The Holes Are’

Since the pandemic has taken hold, Villegas said his day-to-day job has changed dramatically. He said he’s now focused on connecting residents with social service agencies and food banks and helping them navigate relief paperwork.

Villegas said he’s been fielding an “overwhelming” number of resident requests each day.

“Imagine a dam and you’re trying to put your fingers where the holes are,” he said. “I would say the community response is just like that. You’re plugging up the holes as quickly as possible but you’re always playing catch up.”

Many Belmont Cragin residents are essential blue-collar workers who live in multi-generational households. Some are undocumented and fear being tested and don’t qualify for federal relief. Some don’t have health insurance or are under-insured.

“The fact is in that in Belmont Cragin we have families — large families — and some of them work two or three jobs and they gotta work,” Reboyras said. “If one of them gets it, they’re bringing it home with them.”

James Rudyk, executive director for the housing nonprofit Northwest Side Housing Center at 5233 W. Diversey Ave., agrees.

“We’re seeing a lot of people continuing to go to work because they have to. Therefore, they’re coming into contact with people who test positive and are putting their families at greater risk because of necessity,” he said.

Villegas and Reboyras said aldermen in hard-hit Latino communities are pushing to open up church rectories and Downtown hotels to Belmont Cragin residents who need to self-isolate.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

To help keep residents safe, Villegas said he’s distributed more than 35,000 masks throughout the 36th Ward, which also includes parts of Hermosa, Montclare and Portage Park. About two-thirds of those masks have gone to Belmont Cragin residents, he said.

“It’s been very challenging because there’s a huge percentage of the Belmont Cragin community that’s essential workers so it’s been tough trying to make they have the required [personal protective equipment,] masks and supplies,” he said.

Alonso Zaragoza, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood and a community leader, said his group, Belmont-Cragin United, has overseen the production of at least 430 handmade face masks. Zaragoza is also handing out hand sanitizer to residents in need.

“We’re trying to provide them with some resources that we’re not getting from the city and we’re definitely not getting from the federal government,” he said.

Zaragoza is helping his neighbors as the pandemic starts to hit home.

“One of my neighbors, his grandpa passed away. We had another person on the block pass away, too. We’ve got a lot of people who are infected. We’ve done a couple GoFundMes but we can’t keep doing that,” he said.

Reboyras said he, too, has distributed masks. Just recently, he gave a box of 2,000 masks to a nursing home in Belmont Cragin currently seeing an “explosion” of coronavirus cases and deaths.

As of May 8, Central Nursing Home at 2450 N. Central Ave. had seen 80 confirmed cases and 14 deaths linked to COVID-19, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Reboyras said the director of Central Nursing Home told him they don’t have enough masks, gloves and other protective supplies, which is what prompted him to donate. He said the nursing home director is “doing as much as he can” to keep residents and staffers safe under difficult circumstances.

Central Nursing Home administrators didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Unlike Villegas, Reboyras said his ward office hasn’t been fielding many calls from struggling residents in recent weeks. He said he has received many calls, however, about the west suburban pastor who violated the stay at home order and held in-person services at a Belmont Cragin church this weekend.

“We’re getting beat up for that one,” Reboyras said.

Joe Wyrostek held two services Sunday at Metro Praise International, 5405 W. Diversey Ave., despite the stay at home order that bans large gatherings. More than 100 congregants attended the two services, and most of the church-goers do not live in the neighborhood.

More broadly, Reboyras said the city needs to do a better job of educating people in Belmont Cragin about the virus and the stay at home order, and it needs to particularly reach out to Spanish-speaking residents.

Reboyras said Lightfoot’s Spanish-language town hall Wednesday was a step in the right direction.

“I’m almost certain that it was done because of what my colleagues and I have been speaking about in the last few weeks,” he said.

Rudyk, the executive director for the Northwest Side Housing Center, said it’s become clear a “one size fits all” approach to battling coronavirus isn’t working.

He said his organization has been asking grocery stores in Belmont Cragin to distribute information related to the pandemic because the traditional news media is not reaching people who need that information.

Since the start of the pandemic, Northwest Side Housing Center has helped hundreds of Belmont Cragin residents stay in their homes.

But “for a community of 80,000 residents and 20 percent are undocumented, hundreds is a drop in the bucket,” Rudyk said.

Community members seeking information on testing and other resources can find them here: Illinoisunidos.com.

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