In April 2020, a handful of weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, we published an article thinking about what life could be like after the emergent nature of the pandemic subsided. We asked 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?”
Now, a little over three years later we have passed the pandemic phase and COVID has become endemic, meaning that the virus is here to stay but it’s much less potent. Having reached a point where the virus is killing fewer people, and with federal and state governments declaring the public health emergency over and discontinuing support programs, most people have moved on from the extreme caution of the first couple of years. (Vaccines work: be sure to get your booster this fall.)
This week we wanted to look back on that editorial and take account of where we are with regard to the social, cultural, financial, and medical health of Champaign-Urbana. What has changed in the last three years?
We’ve published many times on the importance of combating poverty and homelessness in C-U. In the fall of 2022, the City of Champaign Township opened Strides, a low-barrier shelter in Champaign. This is certainly a much-needed resource, and we’re glad that it was able to open, despite some initial consternation about location.
Next month, construction will begin on a complex of tiny homes in Urbana. These tiny homes will serve people who are “medically fragile and chronically homeless.” It’s funded by Carle and the City of Urbana, and there are no time limits regarding how long people can stay. This is exactly what huge entities like Carle should be funding, especially since they continue to refuse to pay their fair share in property taxes under the largely specious claim that they are a non-profit. We love to see COVID-era funding being used for projects like this and if the project is successful, it will be an excellent example of public-private funding collaborations whose benefit greatly surpasses the initial financial investment.
The City of Champaign launched the Community Gun Violence Reduction Blueprint in February 2022. We wrote about our thoughts on the blueprint last year. Gun violence seems to be down locally, following nationwide trends, but it’s still a major problem. We’re looking forward to the City of Champaign’s report on the effects of the Community Gun Violence Reduction Blueprint.
The installation of fiber optic internet continues throughout C-U, offering reliable, high speed internet to many communities. Reliable, high speed internet that can handle multiple streaming devices is not only great when you have gamers and movie watchers in your home, but also when kids are doing virtual school days.
In our previous article, we called for prioritizing support for our cultural and arts organizations. We will continue to yell about this, probably forever, because cultural and artistic output and celebration indicates the health of a community. We once again have robust, in-person events like Toast to Taylor, Friday Night Live, Boneyard Arts Festival, and PYGMALION. We will continue to call for the support of 40 North and the Urbana Arts & Culture Program, as well as larger entities like Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. As we noted in our last editorial, the return of small- and medium-sized performance stages and venues is most welcome. We love the outdoor stage at Rose Bowl, and hope that future venues might adopt similar indoor-outdoor stages.
Since 2020, everything has gotten more expensive, which puts people living within or on the edge of poverty in more precarious positions. Electricity rates have gone way up in Champaign and Urbana; stormwater fees could quadruple in Urbana, and increase by 5% in Champaign. Add on rent increases, inflation sucking up wages, the increased cost of food and gas, and it’s challenging for many people.
Food pantries are an important way for people to receive hot meals and fresh food. You can reach out to any of these food pantries to donate materials, time, or money.
One unfortunate side effect of the pandemic has been the closure and/or reimagining of many small businesses, especially restaurants. NAYA has been reimagined, yet again; Sakanaya in Downtown Champaign doesn’t seem likely; Crane Alley shuttered last year. There are a whole lot of vacant buildings across Champaign and Urbana. Right now it seems like the barrier for entry for new, small businesses might be too high.
Here, in 2023, we have all had access to COVID vaccines and boosters. According to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD), 68% of eligible people in Champaign County have received the first two vaccinations, but only 22% have received the bivalent booster. That’s not a great number. People who are unvaccinated are testing positive at higher levels. Vaccination — and mask wearing — are not just about protecting yourself, but also about protecting others, especially higher-risk and vulnerable groups. Can local employers adopt more generous and flexible work from home arrangements, especially when people are sick? We encourage people to mask in crowded spaces when they’re symptomatic, as everyone benefits.
As we noted in 2020, we want to encourage free health clinics and community engagement from our major healthcare providers. CUPHD also offers a variety of services, including dental care and STD screenings, and there are more abortion services available in C-U than three years ago.
Though we did not address the shifts in politics and culture war issues here, it’s important to note that many people have to deal with intersectional discrimination, resulting in a slightly different kind of medical vulnerability that can be just as devastating and dangerous as those with more obvious ones. We hope that despite the current climate — particularly the violent anti-LGBTQ+ movement — C-U’s medical providers can expand gender inclusive and affirming care.
Returning to those two questions we posed in April 2020 — 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? — we can say that we want our new normal to look more equitable and inclusive than the previous normal. We want safe and affordable housing for everyone in our community. We want our public and private institutions to work in tandem to create and implement programs that have tangible, real benefits for everyone. As for what it means to be well? That seems to be less tangible, more abstract and amorphous. We hope that that question can be asked again and again and for the responses to fundamentally be something that acknowledges that we are most well as a community when the most vulnerable among us are taken care of.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.