Smile Politely

Now is the time to make plans for our post-COVID future

A brick wall featuring a mural stating "Outside of Ordinary"
Anna Longworth-Singer

When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, we will have a new normal. With all of the loss (of life, of money, of closeness), there’s no way we can just slip back into the way things were. To try to do so is irresponsible. This pandemic, and our response to it, have further exacerbated the faults in our systems — they are right here, right in our sightlines. We cannot simply cover them up again and hope for the best.

At some point in, say, a year to 18 months from now, we will have a vaccine for this new coronavirus. We will be living in a different normal, one with fewer handshakes, fewer hugs, less actual sharing of food and drink with friends and dates. The way we do business will be different; more people will likely be working remotely. Things will feel weird, until they don’t. But those changes are not the things we want to talk about here. We’re interested in addressing two questions: What do we want the new normal to look like in Champaign-Urbana? What does it mean for us, as a community, to be well?

What we need to do now, collectively, is begin to plan for how we want C-U to operate once we’re on the other side of this pandemic.

Social Health

In the broadest sense, those of us with some financial security, privilege, and a platform will need to advocate for and instigate change; to lobby our representatives at all levels to fight for the policies that bring about that change. As the Trump administration continues to use this crisis as an opportunity to roll back all sorts of regulations, we need to reach out to the people who represent us on city councils, the county board, in Springfield, and in Washington, D.C.

Locally, we have the luxury of being able to focus on helping individuals and small communities. We’ve written about addressing poverty and homelessness before; we hope that these are ongoing conversations with forthcoming solutions. The conversations must also address housing discrimination and segregation. Additionally, we need to continue to find safe spaces for women escaping abusive relationships, and further shore up resources for Courage Connection.

We need to address the problem of gun violence in Champaign and Urbana with ancillary solutions. In addition to Champaign County Community Coalition, what are other programs and opportunities can we provide to those most at risk?

School-aged children at home, needing to attend the virtual classroom underscores disparities in internet access. We need community-wide, affordable, fast, reliable internet. We cannot wait for people to sign up household by household — that will take forever, literally (just look at this map). We need to figure out a way to build out the service to the entire C-U area.

Cultural Health

The first thing many of us do to fill our time is turn to media: we watch movies, television, or read books. We don’t often consider the people who make that stuff, but they are artists. Funding for the arts is precarious in good times, and in a crisis it’s almost never considered essential. Yes, we sound like a broken record, but we have to seriously start supporting artistic and cultural production in Champaign-Urbana. Coming out of a crisis we’ll want to immediately take advantage of the fun things we missed: movies, concerts, Boneyard Festival, Ebertfest, Friday Night Live, for example. We have to agitate for a dedicated budget from the City of Champaign and double down on our support of the Urbana Arts & Culture Program. We need better funding for 40 North, the organization of two people that brings us almost all of the non-University of Illinois visual arts programming in C-U.

Financial Health

We have to support our local non-profits. An easy way to do this is to round up each time you’re shopping at Common Ground Food Co-op. At most, the donation is $0.99 per transaction, and we know that even in those small numbers, thousands of dollars are raised for organizations doing good, important work in our community. Can other small businesses implement something similar? Can we, as consumers, round up at other local stores?

As this pandemic continues, C-U’s food banks will be tested. Those who can give, must. As our friends on the right are quick to point out, the government cannot provide all solutions to society’s problems. If we’re serious about making changes to build a more equitable society, it’s time to put our money where our mouths are. If we have the money to give to Wesley Food Pantry, Eastern Illinois Foodbank, or any of these other entities, now’s the time to give.

We need to think about how we might adjust to fewer students returning to the U of I campus. What if some students, especially international students, decide that the United States isn’t safe enough, and in turn, decide not to return to campus this fall? How will that affect our local economy? Will there be a secondary loss of businesses? Will some businesses decide it’s just not worth it to reopen?

What about all of these now-and possibly-future-empty high-rise apartment buildings? We know that some builders receive tax credits and incentives regardless of capacity; can our local governments make moves to mitigate that credit, to reabsorb those costs and put them into places that might need it more, like social services? It’s worth considering how those empty apartments could be temporarily repurposed. Imagine the positive outcomes in C-U by providing people with six months of rent-free housing in these mostly empty apartment buildings so they embark on new lives.

In C-U, we do an amazing job of shopping locally, and supporting locally owned businesses and farms. In addition to continuing to do that, we should take this moment to find creative ways to enhance and fortify those relationships. Supporting organizations like The Land Connection is one way; let those with the expertise and experience continue to work with farmers and producers to streamline the process of bringing goods to consumers, especially those in food deserts.

In the words of the great Wu-Tang Clan, cash rules everything around me (and by extension, us). Sometimes the best way to help people is to give them cash. We’ve seen this charge being led by black and indigenous people on Twitter and Instagram (Shea Serrano, Roxane Gay, Sierra Ornelas); this is not our idea, we’re just amplifying it. The current freeze on evictions and disconnection of utilities is necessary, but it won’t last forever. Our neighbors who can’t currently afford those things now because of lack of income will not just magically be able to pay when the state orders are lifted. If you can afford it, give your neighbors, family, and/or friends cash for bills or groceries or prescriptions. Ask them what they need (groceries, an Ameren bill, gas money). It will indeed be awkward — there is so much shame in our society about work and wealth equaling worth — but those efforts make tangible differences, sometimes life or death ones. Perhaps your place of worship does something similar. Now’s the time to contribute what you can.

There are so many hourly workers, especially those in the hospitality business who have lost jobs or are at greater risk of falling ill. Visit Champaign County established the “Hospitality Relief Fund to provide direct financial support for individuals who have immediately formerly worked in the greater Champaign County area as housekeepers, caterers, cooks, front desk staff or anywhere in our hotel partner operations.” One employee per hotel partner will get $250; you can donate here.

Medical Health

Carle and OSF Health need to take the money they’re saving on tax exemptions and invest it back into the community. They need to open free and low cost health clinics in areas that need them: communities where many people are uninsured, and rural communities that are far from medical facilities. And since we’re talking about it, we would love to see all healthcare providers make serious efforts to mitigate expressions of medical discrimination and bias among their employees.

Everyone’s mental health has been taxed in the last six weeks. How can we support those who are supporting us? What do our medical and mental health professionals need from the community to continue to provide top notch care?


Though most of the time we write about how everything and everyone and all non-profit organizations need money, it’s worth noting that some of them also have the need for volunteers and donated services. If you don’t have expendable income to give, but do have time or a special skill set, or even enthusiasm, many non profit organizations will still be open and grateful for your contributions.

One thing we’ve seen over the course of this pandemic is the coming together to build mutual aid networks. We have to maintain this level of community engagement — it’s the only way we’ll succeed in building a better C-U.

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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