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Workers in the Loop in Chicago pass the Chicago Theater during the early days of the stay-at-home order in the city meant to fight the coronavirus.
Pedestrians cross the street in the Loop business district during rush hour in the Loop on March 20, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
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Life in Chicago during stay-at-home orders

How six Chicagoans are coping

Canceled events, lost work, shuttered stores, empty public spaces, and panic shopping: Life during coronavirus has rapidly, and overwhelmingly, changed.

What does it mean to live under statewide stay-at-home orders, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker has extended through the end of April? Officially, the order mandates that “nonessential” businesses close, and only “necessary industry,” such as government, grocery stores, pharmacies, health care facilities, day cares, restaurants, and media may operate in-person. It means social distancing and schools operating remotely as students learn from home. But that hardly captures the upheaval, perspectives, and creative problem-solving that come with life under a form of lockdown with no guaranteed end in sight. At least we have Mayor Lightfoot memes.

Curbed spoke with Chicago-area residents to get a sense of how their lives have and haven’t changed since these orders were announced. If you’d like to share your own stories, please reach out to Curbed Chicago at

“We know ourselves when our back is up against the wall.” —Colin Cordwell, 63, Lincoln Park

Man is a social animal, says Cordwell, owner of Lincoln Park’s Red Lion Pub. That job typically makes barkeeps like himself akin to “frontline psychiatric field medics,” a service that’s sadly missed these days.

“The Romans had a saying: ‘We don’t know ourselves during times of opulence, we know ourselves when our back is up against the wall,’” he says. “Someone may ask whether births, divorces, or murders are going to go up during the time. I say the answer, like in the SATs, is D, all of the above.”

Cordwell’s tried his best to adapt and stay open; in the weeks before the order to close bars and restaurants, he’d spend three hours a night sanitizing the bar and refilling two Purell dispensers he set up, and would wash the doorknobs every half hour. But hoping he could stay open was like “paddling against the current going over Niagara Falls.”

He’s trying to do right by his 12 employees, whom he had to lay off, and said he’ll “help them any way he can,” including starting a GoFundMe page. A Lincoln Park native who grew up six blocks from his bar, Cordwell owns the building in which his business operates, so he feels like he can ride this out. But he’s worried for other bars, which he fears “could potentially vanish.”

With the bar closed, Cordwell spends much of his day at home, where he lives with his wife and two kids home from college, cleaning and dusting some of the 12,000-plus volumes in his home library. He jokingly compares his situation to the famous Twilight Zone episode in which the sole survivor of a nuclear attack relishes all the time he’ll have to read books, only to then step on and break his reading glasses.

Though mostly homebound, he walks through the empty streets almost every day to stop and check in at his bar. He’ll fire up the DVD player and watch a war movie alone to relax.

He also looks for any humor he can find in the situation. “I had a real challenging childhood,” he says. “Whenever things were dim and dark, I’d say to myself, ‘How can I make this funny?’”

The area around the Bean sits empty in Millennium Park due to efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.
The Bean in Millennium Park is closed to visitors on March 19, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois.
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It’s amazing to see how people are wired for connection.” —Serena Roschman, 38, Evanston

A yoga studio owner whose classes focus on reducing anxiety, Serena Roschman has found her services in high demand. But prohibitions on gathering have made it a challenge to keep her business, Room to Breathe, open and accessible to students.

“I realized two and a half weeks ago that if we didn’t get an online program going, we’d go out of business and people would lose their jobs,” she says. “Yoga teaching isn’t super lucrative in the best of times.”

She’s been working 14-hour days ever since. Her bedroom in the apartment she shares with her husband and 11-year-old stepdaughter has been converted into a combination office, gym, and studio; she shoved her bed to one side of the room, creating just enough space to livestream classes on Zoom.

“People need stability right now as much as they can have it, and part of our job is to provide some of that stability for out students,” she says. “People are excited to see other people, and that sense of connection, even if it’s through a little box on the screen. It’s amazing to see how people are wired for connection.”

Room to Breathe caters to students who have experienced trauma and anxiety, and now that “we’re experiencing collective trauma,” says Roschman, the studio has found a popular niche. The brick-and-mortar space, which employs 15 teachers, 13 psychotherapists, and four support staff, can hold only 11 people at a time. Now that Room to Breathe is fully online—not an easy task, Roschman says, since some teachers still use flip phones—they’ve consistently held larger classes, and have been able to reach a wider audience.

It’s been a whirlwind adapting her style of instruction to video, and her husband, a high school teacher who’s also working from home, is making the same rapid adjustments. He’s teaching in the living room, she’s working long hours, and at night, they do a deep cleaning of the house. She wonders about how her daughter’s generation will be impacted by this shutdown.

Yoga is about understanding that things are always in flux and in motion. So how should people try to calm and ground themselves in the midst of so much uncertainty?

“The best thing I’ve observed for people is to try and find a way to feel the ground beneath them,” she says. “I’ve had students gather things from their house, something that smells good, to engage their sense so their mind has some space to rest. Lay on your back with your hands on your belly and breathe. It can be useful for having your nervous system chill out for a second.”

“Without games, Wrigleyville will be changed. Most of the city will be changed.” —Matt Pospiech, 27, Wicker Park

Working in hospitality means talking to people all day. For Matt Pospiech, who helps manage the family business, the Piggery sports bar on Ashland Avenue and Irving Park Road, the new normal is an eerie quiet. After letting 20 employees go, the restaurant is working with a skeleton crew of five in the kitchen filling takeout orders. The normal rhythms of a sports bar near Wrigleyville—including March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, and Cubs game days—are lost. Pospiech fears this may go on until August.

“Even if they lift the ban, there will be so much stigma around going out to bars,” he says. “Most of the restaurants here don’t even open during the offseason. They make their bread and butter during the season. Without games, Wrigleyville will be changed. Most of the city will be changed.”

Off hours can be just as isolating. He lives in Wicker Park, and his roommate, a barber, left for the backwoods of Tennessee after seeing his work dry up. Where he once filled nights with cooking and dinner parties with friends, he’s now sitting at home with a bottle of wine and binge-watching Tiger King.

“Being inside all day takes a toll on your mental health,” he says. “It’s weird to be in a city where everybody lives so close together, and we’re further apart than ever before.”

Physically perhaps, but Pospiech says he’s seen plenty of examples of community building in new ways. He’s seen a few cases of beer left open on sidewalks, with signs that say “happy quarantine.” Many in the restaurant industry have set up GoFundMe pages for staff. Big Star was offering free meals to those in the industry who had been laid off. He feels like everyone has bonded over the pandemic. Last week, when it hit 60 degrees, he was out running, albeit alone, and a lot more cautiously than normal.

“We just want this to be over as quickly as possible,” he says. “In Chicago, we really only have three months of nice weather. The idea of losing some of that time to this is very depressing.”

An L platform in the South Loop sits nearly empty due to social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders targeting the coronavirus.
A commuter waits for an L train during rush hour in the Loop on March 20, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
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“It would be nice to have plans to go somewhere.” —Makenna Eldridge, 23, Ravenswood

With a job in retail on hold and a roommate who left town, Makenna Eldridge has found new ways to fill the last two weeks alone. Her apartment has never looked cleaner, and thank to obsessive playing of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, she’s at least “making her fake life look really good.”

“You can buy a house and pay a mortgage, stuff millennials often can’t do, so it’s my escapism right now,” she says.

Laid off from the retail boutique she managed, along with her staff, she’s been trying to figure out if she can collect unused vacation pay. Luckily, she did her taxes early this year, so her return will cover April rent, but she’s not sure how long it’ll last. Sometimes she wants to complain about losing her job, but realizes everybody’s life is a bit wonky now.

“I was already looking for jobs where I could utilize what I studied at DePaul, history, but that’s completely on halt since nobody is hiring,” she says. “I was going to start volunteering at the Art Institute, but that’s not happening anymore.”

The time alone has made her realize just how extroverted she is, or at least how much she misses people. Mundane things like meeting a friend for a drink at a bar seem sort of magical now. Grocery shopping without an anxiety attack would be fantastic. She’s never talked to her friends so much before, and never spent so much time actually using a phone for talking.

Technology has helped. She’s hosted FaceTime movie nights with friends. Her friend met someone on Tinder and instead of going out on a date, they met up in Animal Crossing. But it’s not a real substitute.

“I even miss customers who have been mean to me in the past, just for the in-person interaction,” she says. “I miss seeing people face-to-face. It would be nice to have plans to go somewhere.”

“Everything is on standstill.” —Katie Kowalczyk, 29, River North

Life, in many ways, is frustratingly on hold right now. For Katie Kowalczyk, the pause button was hit during a particularly complicated transaction, when she was about to sell her condo. After splitting up with a partner she was living with, she moved to a new unit in her building and was in the midst of selling her previous home. Potential buyers even visited in early March, but in the last few weeks, interest has dried up.

“Everything is on standstill,” she says. “My real estate agent said it’s like that across the board, it’s a wait-and-see time. I am really hoping that within the next six weeks or so, there’s some return to normal.”

Kowalczyk, who works as a corporate buyer for a consumer goods company and teaches fitness classes on the side, feels like the economy can’t be kept on standstill forever. But it’s hard to be on pause without knowing when someone is going to press play again. It’s hard not to see people in person at the office.

She loves having her own space right now, and can’t wait to make it official once the sale of her old unit goes through. She feels fortunate to be able to afford her current living situation, but definitely doesn’t want to do it forever. She wants to save, take a trip, build up an emergency fund, all things that need to wait.

At least her commute, which was 40 minutes and is now 400 feet, is better. She’s been staying connected to friends through WebEx lunches or WhatsApp messages. And she’s concerned about staying in shape, and gets outside whenever she can. Even after just a few weeks of staying at home, the changes are noticeable.

“When this is over, will I be more thoughtful about my purchasing?” she says. “Do I really need to buy $500 worth of clothes? This really makes me think. If something like this ever happens again, I want to be prepared for the future.”

An image of an empty Wrigleyville on a mid-March day in Chicago.
A sign on the wall of Murphy’s Bleachers across from the bleacher entrance to Wrigley Field.
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“I’ve never felt more excited and motivated than I do now to come to work.” —Jason Chodakowski, 33, Old Town

An emergency medicine doctor working at Northwestern Memorial downtown, Chodakowski says his day-to-day routine hasn’t changed much (“I don’t have time to go out much anyways.”) But his work certainly has. He’s dealing with more and more COVID-19 patients, and his wife, who’s also an emergency medicine doctor, would be as well, if she weren’t pregnant and currently excused from clinical duties.

It’s eerie right now as the hospital and staff brace for a surge in cases. They don’t have a shortage of personal protective equipment yet, but are still worried about running out. Everyone describes it as “waiting for the storm.” As in many emergency departments across the country, activity right now is slower, since many patients who would come in regularly are staying away.

“Many of the patients I’m taking care of have COVID-19, I’m sure,” he says. “Fever, cough, shortness of breath, often they’ll have a sick contact at home. Some are mild, and some are very, very sick. Our concern is around our hospital is filling up with those very sick people. We’re not New York City by any means, but we’re very scared of that happening here.”

The current crisis has made his return home to his one-bedroom apartment much more complicated.

“I’m very meticulous now about how I take off my clothing,” he says. “I have a set of scrubs I wear in the hospital. I put those in the wash in the hospital, then put on my clothes in the hospital, come home, carefully take all the clothes off, and immediately hop into the shower, then wash out anything I can with an alcohol-soaked paper towel.”

Coronavirus has also caused him to reconsider the nature of his job.

“This current crisis is validating,” he says. “It’s fulfilling. Going through residency, you can get a little jaded and lose the spark that got you to go into this in the first place. This rekindled it. I’ve never felt more excited and motivated than I do now to come to work.”

The adrenaline is mixed with fear. He reassures himself that thankfully, young people without medical problems tend to have mild cases, and he doesn’t smoke. He tries his best to take precautions. But the novel coronavirus is always there.

“You can’t see or smell it, but you know it’s there,” he says. “It’s eerie to walk into a room and know the virus is hanging out. It you make a small mistake taking a glove off and touch your hand, you can inadvertently contaminate yourself. You think about every object in the hospital as being contaminated. That’s hard to get used to.”


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