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Mayor closes police station, pulls officers off streets after an officer tests positive for COVID-19

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Blue Island Deputy Chief Michael Cornell retiring in 2018. (Facebook)

Police officers in Blue Island, Illinois were pulled off the streets and out of the station early Sunday morning after the city learned one of their ranks had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, city officials said.

Mayor Domingo Vargas said he made the call to send officers home after consulting with the police chief and state and county health officials.

“My main thing has been and always will be the safety of my men and women, the employees and residents of Blue Island,” he said. “(State and county health officials) advised us what needed to be done and we are following their recommendations.”

Vargas said Blue Island officers remained on duty until Cook County sheriff’s deputies were able to relieve them.

Blue Island Police Chief Bernadine Rzab remains in control of the department and in communication with her direct reports, but at least six sheriff’s office units are handling all patrolling for the time being, he said.

The city has closed the police station until further notice and will be performing a deep cleaning Sunday, Vargas said.

The extent to which other officers and employees may need to self-quarantine and other city buildings may need to close for cleaning won’t be known until officials have a better idea of the infected officer’s recent whereabouts, the mayor said.

Vargas said he did not know the infected officer’s current condition, but believed they had not been at work in over a week.

State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, released a statement Sunday criticizing Vargas’ actions and his alleged failure to contact his office or City Council members before making his “rash decision” to suspend the police department’s activities.

“In the event that a first responder falls ill with COVID-19 or any other illness, there are state-mandated protocols in place to protect both the employee and any others coming in contact with that person,” Rita said in a statement. “These protocols are in place to ensure that we can protect both individual officers while not threatening the safety of the general public. Based on current information, these vital protocols were not followed by Mayor Vargas when making his decision.”

Vargas said Sunday he was aware of Rita’s remarks, but did not know how the state legislator would have preferred he handle the situation.

“This is a time that we don’t have no time to play,” he said. “Decisions have to be made and I made the decision.”

Vargas said the only other course of action he could have taken was to allow the officers to remain in the station in spite of what he knew about the risk for further infection.

“I can’t risk that, and I won’t risk the safety of my force and the residents of Blue Island,” he said. “Their lives are too precious.”

The mayor said he also learned this weekend that another Blue Island employee had been experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and had undergone testing Sunday. The results are pending, but if that individual also tests positive, it could necessitate a scrub down of City Hall — which has been closed to the public, but remains open for a “skeleton crew” of employees — and the quarantine of additional workers, he said.

At this point, Vargas said there have been no issues with the county assuming police patrols and that no other city services have been disrupted.

“It’s been quiet,” he said.

zkoeske@tribpub.com

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©2020 The Daily Southtown (Tinley Park, Ill.)

Visit The Daily Southtown (Tinley Park, Ill.) at www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/daily-southtown

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