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Hammond, East Chicago mayors limiting city activities amid COVID-19 pandemic
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Hammond, East Chicago mayors limiting city activities amid COVID-19 pandemic

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City halls will remain open in Hammond and East Chicago but limited to critical government business, while police will enforce Gov. Eric Holcomb's strict limits on large gatherings to prevent the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Separate executive orders issued Monday by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland show just how much the world of Northwest Indiana local government has changed in just a few weeks.

McDermott's order, aimed at safeguarding residents of Lake County's most populous city, restricts access to key government buildings, bans city employees from events with more than 50 people, and shutters the Hammond Civic Center, Jean Shepherd Community Center and the Hammond Senior Center at Pulaski Park until further notice.

The Sportsplex and other city buildings will be closed to the public on "non-essential business" to protect workers and the public from COVID-19, he said.

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Copeland, likewise, ordered the closure of East Chicago recreation centers, the School of the Performing Arts, the Washington Park Greenhouse, and the water department lobby. Though its drive-thru will remain open for residents to pay water bills.

In addition, no audience is permitted at East Chicago public meetings that are broadcast, the state of the city address is canceled, banks and restaurants no longer can offer lobby or dine-in service, and there will be no city Easter egg hunt, Earth Day celebration, Cinco De Mayo celebration or flower show.

Copeland said East Chicago buses will continue running, but riders are encouraged to put as much distance as possible between themselves and other riders. The buses also will be cleaned and sanitized more regularly.

"Stay at home. If you don't have to go, don't," said Dr. Gerri Browning, East Chicago health officer.

"We've never been challenged in my lifetime with this type of a health risk, and I think we're in a very good position in the city of East Chicago: we have no known cases; there's no suspected cases; no symptomatic individuals."

East Chicago COVID-19 press conference

Dr. Gerri Browning, East Chicago health officer, left, and Mayor Anthony Copeland speak Monday about actions the city is taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Moments prior to starting his news conference, McDermott asked several Hammond employees to listen or watch from their offices to implement social distancing and limit the event to 50 people at most.

Under McDermott's order, all city board meetings will be canceled until April 6, with a rolling reassessment every three weeks after that.

Boards will meet for emergency matters only and to vote on claims to keep city services running and vendors paid, he said.

Hammond Emergency Press Conference

The City of Hammond's COVID-19 task force, city employees and members of the news media listen to Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. deliver a news conference in the lobby at Hammond City Hall.

Residents are encouraged to submit questions about canceled board meetings to the city in writing, and watch the seldom public meetings being held via television or through social media live streaming. 

Under his order, the city's use of gaming revenue on capital projects and other matters has been indefinitely suspended, after Holcomb ordered casinos statewide to be closed through the end of March, McDermott said. 

"We can't spend money we don't have," McDermott said. 

The deadline for rental registration and dog tags in Hammond also has been extended, with fees waived through June 1.

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In addition, McDermott and Copeland ordered maintenance staffs to deep clean city building exits and entryways, handrails, and countertops frequently, and for staff to deep clean and disinfect various department offices and other city facilities.

Employees in both cities still are required to show up to work unless they are sick, exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, or test positive for the virus. However, Hammond's personnel director plans to identify employees considered non-essential and deploy remote workplace options.

Meanwhile, East Chicago workers are not permitted to gather in groups larger than 10 — a rule ironically announced in small room with 25 people present — or travel outside Lake County for non-essential purposes.

Hammond Emergency Press Conference

Comprehensive care doctor Frank Messana provides recommendations for people to best prevent the spread of COVID-19 during an emergency news conference hosted Monday at Hammond City Hall.

In Hammond, Dr. Frank Messana, a doctor with Comprehensive Care Medical Center advising Hammond government leaders on the outbreak, said the U.S. is living in "unprecedented times." 

While COVID-19 is not a tremendous health threat to the average, healthy individual, the virus is incredibly contagious and has a higher mortality rate than the average flu or virus globally, he said. 

"The reason we're doing this is to protect the people who are at high risk ... our elderly population and our population that have significant underlying medical conditions. If we allowed that population to be exposed all at the same time, it would overwhelm our health care capacity here locally, in the state, and federally. We are not equipped to handle that kind of influx of severely ill individuals," he said. 

Hammond Emergency Press Conference

Hammond Department of Engineering worker Cathy Kizziah listens from the doorway down the hall from Hammond City Hall's lobby on Monday as Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. issues a new superseding executive order. Prior to the conference, McDermott Jr. asked several city employees to listen or watch from their offices to implement social distancing.

"We've all seen the pictures and videos from Italy and parts of Europe ... and certainly, what got out from China, it was terrifying. We don't want that to happen here," Messana added. 

While Hammond's outdoor, recreational parks and other public settings will remain open, McDermott encouraged people to use the rules of social distancing and limit interaction with the public. 

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McDermott warned younger city residents to take the 50-person limit for gatherings seriously. Days earlier, some Chicagoans ignored calls from federal health experts to maintain distance as they celebrated St. Patrick's Day ahead of Tuesday's holiday.

"You can carry this virus and get your parents, get your grandparents sick. You can carry this virus and give that to your loved ones," McDermott warned.

Copeland said everyone should continue washing their hands to protect themselves and those around them.

"If we are all of one accord, we're going to get through this," Copeland said. "We're going to look out for one another. We're going to get past this crisis."

Hammond Emergency Press Conference

Susan Dimopoulos, chief deputy in the Hammond City Clerk's Office, watches from the window as Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. issues a new executive order with superseding requirements for the city on Monday in the lobby of Hammond City Hall. Prior to the news conference, McDermott Jr. asked several employees to listen or watch from their offices to implement social distancing, and to best meet an expectation of no more than 50 people in a space.

Messana suggested at-risk populations seek medical care, but the average, healthy person who feels under the weather should use common sense: Stay home. 

"If you are ill, if you're sneezing, have a fever, cough, stay away from people. Do everybody a favor and stay away from people," Messana said. 

For more information, visit gohammond.com/COVID19

Times reporter Dan Carden contributed to this story.

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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