Like many businesses in Cook County, Illinois, Dr. Domenic Cusano’s Chicago-based chiropractic clinic suffered great financial losses under the government’s COVID-19 policies.
As the country held its breath, unsure of how long the pandemic would last, Cook County announced its plan to provide economic relief to mitigate small businesses’ losses.
Early on, Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle promised that the recovery would “work for all residents, regardless of race.”
But that promise was not to be kept. In fact, it would take a legal challenge by Dr. Cusano and Pacific Legal Foundation to hold the county accountable to its word.
In the fall of 2022, Cook County unveiled the Source Grow Grant Program, which provided $10,000 in grants to eligible small businesses that faced increased costs or drops in income from the pandemic.
But the grant program did not view applicants equally. Instead, business owners seeking relief were prioritized based on their race or ethnicity. The program favored “historically excluded populations,” including persons of color, over applicants like Dr. Cusano, who did not fit that bill.
His race did not make him any less susceptible to the economic fallout of the pandemic than any other businessowner. Yet, his individual circumstances were ignored in the name of equity. Commissioners were unabashed in their intention to discriminate in the program and talked about using it to “[reduce] the racial gap.”
Thankfully, with the help of PLF, Dr. Cusano fought back.
He sued the county, the Board of Commissioners, and Board President Preckwinkle in federal court to uphold his right to equal treatment under law, as is promised in the Fourteenth Amendment. And while many business owners were subjected to the same discriminatory treatment, Dr. Cusano was the one who was willing to fight for his right to equal treatment.
The fight paid off. After Dr. Cusano’s lawsuit was filed, the county announced in February 2023 that it would terminate the discriminatory grant program. The county will restructure and refine a new program instead of facing further litigation over the challenged program.
Because Dr. Cusano had the courage to stand up for his right to be treated equally and fairly, the county retreated, and officials must now think twice about discriminating against business owners based on race.
It’s not just Cook County that should reevaluate plans to disadvantage individuals based on skin color. Numerous cities across the country have announced “equity” plans that signal race-based policies with the same intentions expressed by Cook County, such as closing the wealth gap or addressing historic disinvestment.
San Antonio, Texas, and Alexandria, Virginia, already implemented discriminatory grant programs, the latter of which was rescinded following a legal challenge. Perhaps all these places have their own Dr. Cusano willing to stand up for equal rights.
For now, at least, the business owners of Cook County will not be reduced to the color of their skin when they apply for COVID assistance. The county’s rescission is a step in the right direction and a victory for equal protection of the law.