State and local leaders are making decisions every day about the COVID-19 pandemic that are met with both praise and criticism. This is WNIJ's fourth part of our series "The Hot Seat" talking to leaders about the process behind these big decisions.
Democratic state representative Barbara Hernandez of Illinois’ 83rd district started the year off full speed ahead.
“I was campaigning nonstop knocking on doors for eight hours, even weekends,” she said.
Then March came. And things came to a screeching halt.
“And then I knew on the 18th I was supposed to go back to Springfield that day,” she said. “So, I was ready to go back. And I realized that everything changed.”
Tom Demmer is a Republican state representative for District 90. He’s also in his party’s leadership in the Illinois House. He said the biggest change for him was that he doesn’t travel as much.
“I have a district that’s 65 miles wide and about 50 miles north to south. And so to cover that amount of territory, typically you spend a huge amount of time in the car,” he said. “Also, typically during this time of the year we’d be driving back and forth to Springfield every week.”
Hernandez said at first she didn’t realize a tidal wave was coming.
“In a way I knew what was going on with the coronavirus in China and different parts of the countries. But because I was so focused on the campaign, I really didn't acknowledge the big impact,” she shared.
The door-to-door visits for her turned to phone calls and digital interactions. She said calling nurses was the most difficult.
“It's their job to make sure they protect everybody. So to be able to just call the nurse and hear her and just vent by crying together really showed what this community and what this world is going through,” she said.
She said after that it became harder for her to make those phone calls but she will continue.
Demmer’s wife is a nurse. He said she had to take extra precautions when she came home from work.
“We had a little decontamination station set up at the door. She would change clothes at the hospital before she came home,” he said. “You know, try to isolate as much of that, you know, the shoes and the clothing and everything.”
Hernandez said, even in normal circumstances, making decisions is not easy.
“And it's hard because I know as soon as I'm labeled a state representative that automatically is my label. So, 'Barbara the human' is no longer there to their eyes,” she explained.
She said the pandemic has added an extra layer to the process. Hernandez said she always thinks about her constituents when considering things that go into a decision.
“How big of an impact will it be towards that community? I want to make sure that the impact is positive for families and students,” she shared. "And for those I will be always able to acknowledge and be able to defend.”
She said her priority is to ensure that the families are being supported financially, mentally and emotionally.
Demmer suggested that every decision will come with those who are for it and those who are against it. He said dealing with that is a part of being an elected official.
"When we look at things like a reopening plan, the principle of having local involvement and input into a plan is one that a wide variety of people agree with," he said.
And, he said, if people understand the principle, the details of the plan don’t have to be explained as much.
Hernandez said right now, during the pandemic, decisions have to balance safety and the economy.
“Those are two sides that I see. And it is a little bit difficult. I think one of the bills that they wanted to propose this week or two -- the governor was wanting to propose was to fine small businesses,” she said.
She voted against this plan and said that small businesses have endured enough. She said she trusts that small businesses in Aurora would follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once they reopen.
Hernandez said things are tough during this time but she still has to continue working. With emotion, she shared what keeps her going.
“The families, the families are the ones that need it the most. And I know that all the stories that I hear constantly, and emails that I read, they, they're frustrated, some of them yell at me and that is fine.”
And Hernandez reflects on the times when her office is able to help someone, and she finds gratitude.
“I know there are some good stories that we're able to share that possibly tried to get unemployment for weeks, and then they reached out to my office and we were able to get that done,” she said.
Demmer said the pandemic has promoted a regional approach to solving problems. Local officials had good relationships in the past, he said, but the crisis really forced them to work together more closely, and he’s seeing great collaboration.
“People trying to understand, ‘What’s the mayor in the next town doing? How are they dealing with some of these unexpected circumstances?’ Or ‘What’s the health department next door doing?’ And those things are really positive,” he shared.
Last week Hernandez and Demmer traveled to Springfield for a state house session. They both said that it was quite a change from past ones.
Hernandez said she loves the capitol building, but this time, the meetings were held at a convention center. And everyone took precautions.
“That was completely new because sometimes we were there for eight or nine hours and that was the longest time I had a mask on for all my life,” she explained.
She said everyone stayed six feet apart and it felt like she had to yell just to say hello.
Demmer said the experience was surreal.
“Of course, everybody was wearing masks; we got tested before we went down there,” he said. "But really just that physical setting, you know, not being in a situation where we were, you know, in close proximity in the capitol.”
He said this made for a very unique and different session.
Demmer said now is a good time for people to relax and enjoy those around them.
“I think a lot of people are finding that if you can have a little bit of a getaway, you know, spending time with your family that can do quite a bit to fill your tank back up,” he said.
Hernandez said she wants people to know that despite the current crisis, they are still working.
“Even going to Springfield for four or five days and getting tested for COVID. That is part of the job right now,” she said. “And I hope in the future to continue going to session and continue working on bills that could benefit the families.”
In the end, although one is a Democrat and the other a Republican, both representatives have the same goal. And that’s working -- pandemic or not -- on behalf of their constituents.