Chicago's Metro Dailies Take Different Approaches to Exposure

COVID-19 comes into Tribune HQ and Sun-Times tries a one-day remote newsroom experiment

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Even as the COVID-19 pandemic brings shocking cultural and economic developments on a daily, if not hourly, basis, the week of March 9 was a particularly jarring one for Chicagoans.

The Chicago Bulls basketball season was suspended, followed by suspensions of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, and spring training for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox baseball teams. Even more rattling were the indefinite postponements of the St. Patrick’s Day parades in the South Side and Northwest Side and the big parade downtown, with its million-plus spectators and the iconic dying of the Chicago River.

At the Chicago Sun-Times, the reaction was to try going remote for a day on March 12, with nearly all newsroom employees working from home.

“Let’s be clear: This is a trial run,” the newspaper announced in an unsigned editorial. “We have seen no evidence of COVID-19 in our newsroom or in the places we send reporters.

“But given the way things are going, we want to make sure we can keep our employees safe and continue to provide you with the news, 24 hours a day. We would be foolish not to prepare for a day when we might not be able to come to work at our West Loop headquarters.”

The experiment apparently went well, with the Friday the 13th paper arriving, as the editorial hoped, “on your doorstep on Friday morning looking no differently than it does on any other Friday, and the news we will provide all through the day on Thursday at suntimes.com will come to you with the same frequency and high quality you’ve come to expect.”

But at the rival Chicago Tribune, the challenge wasn’t a test. The possibility that its employees had encountered a person infected with COVID-19 was very real.

In June 2018, the Tribune moved out of its iconic Tribune Tower — built after Col. Robert McCormick held a contest among architects in 1922 — and leased room in the Prudential Center some blocks away. The building is located near the huge tourist draw Millennial Park and draws heavy foot traffic to its busy lobby from connections to a pedestrian underground path and commuter train line. It is home to numerous corporate and labor tenants, including the commercial real estate developer CA Ventures.

On March 11 the property manager revealed that a CA Ventures employee had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The Tribune immediately gave employees the option to work from home.

In an email reported by reporter Ryan Ori, Editor-in-Chief Colin McMahon told employees the newspaper "asked Prudential services to increase their cleaning regimen in and around our offices, and they have complied. We will continue to work closely with the building on precautions and next steps.”

The concern was reflected by a similar email sent to employees of Crain Communications, publisher of Crain’s Chicago Business — which isn’t even in the building, but across the street.

“We understand the Prudential building is a common lunch spot for employees working in the area, so please be aware of the situation and avoid the building until it is cleared,” the email said. “If you were in the Prudential building recently, please be aware of your own personal health and speak with your manager about working from home for the next 14 days until the incubation period has expired. If you do not show symptoms during that 14-day period we’ll be happy to have you back."

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