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COVID-19: LGBT Chicagoans weather pandemic's economic storm
by Matt Simonette
2020-03-27

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Millions of U.S. residents will face uncertain financial futures as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. Nearly 3.3 million people filed new unemployment claims the week of March 23, while economic activity has ground to a virtual halt in many, if not most, business sectors.

Thousands of LGBT Chicagoans will be sharing the burden of the financial pain, with circumstances that range from simply having no extra income coming in from side gigs to not being able to pay rent or put food on the table at all.

Chicagoan Jeff Martin has for many years been a server in a Lincoln Park Italian restaurant. He'd recently found a second job—a temporary position he said was just about to be made permanent—catering meetings for a large architectural firm downtown.

But then the severity of the pandemic became readily apparent in the United States—at least to those beyond public-health stakeholders—in late winter. The architectural firm had no longer had meetings that required catering, so Martin was let go.

"At the restaurant, we're only now allowed to do takeout," Martin noted. The mandate to close restaurants to dine-in business was handed down by Gov. JB Pritzker in an effort to reinforce social-distancing practices that health officials believe will be key to alleviating the impact from coronavirus.

Nevertheless, the state directive has hit Martin in his wallet. He credited his restaurant's owners with extreme generosity; besides retaining him to work their takeout business, they are paying him a manager's wage and extended him a loan to tide him over.

"I hated doing that," Martin said of accepting the loan, adding that he's fearful of how he'll be able to pay it back; his hours are scaled back. Family and friends kicked in to help with his car payment, and provided a gift card for groceries.

"If it weren't for them, I don't know what I'd do," Martin said. He applied for unemployment, but he is unlikely to receive any payments for several weeks.

There are thousands of other area residents in Martin's position. The U.S. job market had been robust in recent years but a large number of jobs were part of the service industry, which came with both person-to-person contact, now verboten, and minimal, if any, financial safety nets for someone who can't go in for their job.

Yoga therapist per erez began to privately fear that the pandemic might take its toll on the country when he saw reports of medical catastrophes in China and India. "I kind of suspected that this was the direction that this was going to go in," he said.

erez knew that his business—a large part of part of which is close contact with clients who have serious medical issues—would not be sustainable, at least in the short term.

"I closed down all my clients, and have been attempting to go online" to sustain the business, erez added. But even taking his work virtual has not been without its costs; erez still has to pay for insurance, as well as equipment to produce higher-grade online video.

"If you're running a business online, you're still running a business, so you still have costs," he said.

Schiller Park resident Justin Torres had worked for 35 years in the restaurant industry. He was fired from his position managing three suburban restaurants on March 13.

"I went from watching over three restaurants to sitting and watching Hulu all day," Torres said. He added that his family's income is now a third of what it was previously, and put out a missive on his Facebook wall asking his friends if they needed help with household repairs.

"But the kindness of strangers can only take you so far," he added.

Chicagoan Steve Hickson lost his executive assistant's position last fall. He began looking for a new job immediately after, and figured that he wouldn't need long to search.

"I'm a Cancer and I was raised by Depression-era parents," Hickson said. "I had money saved for this possibility."

He had some promising leads, but those businesses' recruiting and hiring processes slowed through the holidays and January. Hickson had been expecting resolution, but then the pandemic hit. He received assurances that one firm was waiting for a decision from its corporate home office, but, given the current crisis, nobody knows when that will arrive.

Hickson admitted that, being a man in his fifties in a field traditionally dominated by females, he felt like somewhat of a "unicorn." He added, "Now I'll be competing with how many millions of people?"

"It's just frightening—I've never been out of work for more than a month," Hickson said.

Activist Michael O'Connor, who lives in a seniors' building in Bronzeville, said that life has become considerably harder since the shutdown took hold, thanks to both the isolation and money worries.

"I feel the pinch emotionally and I feel it financially," he said, adding that "older people in the LGBT are often invisible."

O'Connor is living with HIV, so maintaining his self-isolation is especially important; coronavirus is especially harsh for persons with compromised immunity. He nevertheless looks forward to when his next assistance check arrives next week, when he'll "put on my mask, my latex gloves and another pair of gloves over that," to get out of his apartment to pick up his medication at Walgreens.

Although O'Connor worries about accessibility of services in the weeks ahead, he said that he was "blessed" that a large number of friends check in on him by phone. Since his building neighbors are older, the halls are silent as everyone self-isolates. He looks forward to obtaining a computer to reduce some of his own isolation.

"But I catch up with my reading and I crochet," O'Connor added. "I figure that every day that you're still above the ground is a good day."


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