After 35 days in the hospital where doctors treated him for COVID-19, Claudio Velez is heading home. The 55-year-old, known for trotting around Chicago with a red cooler full of tamales, will require home care, but is feeling much better after spending much of his time at Rush University Medical Center hooked up to a ventilator.
Velez was discharged from the hospital at 1 p.m. Thursday. The staff at Rush gathered in the lobby and greeted Velez with cheers as his son, Osmar Abad Cruz, pushed his wheelchair out down the hospital corridor. Thursday marked a victory for Velez, who at one point was listed in critical condition. Cruz flew in from San Diego fearing the worst.
August and September were meant to be months of celebration after Velez finally opened his first restaurant. Tamale Guy Chicago was a dream come true for Velez, an immigrant from Acapulco, Mexico who has spent two decades in Chicago, becoming a vital part of the city’s bar scene. Velez built a loyal fanbase for this tamale deliveries to bars. An appearance by Velez, nicknamed the Tamale Guy, brought joy to Chicago’s nightlife.
The restaurant, a venture with Velez and his friends Pierre and Kristin Vega, drew long lines on opening day. Tamale Guy Chicago sold out of food, with lines stretching down Chicago Avenue. Velez celebrated, but wasn’t able to enjoy his achievement for long. After a week of breathing problems, his sister finally convinced him the check into the hospital. Doctors diagnosed him with COVID-19, one of the most severe cases they’ve seen.
Velez’s fans quickly came to his aid, donating to a GoFundMe to pay for his health care costs. Fans raised nearly $57,000 as Velez lacks health insurance. This was the second GoFundMe fans had created for Velez, as they raised more than $36,000 earlier in the year after the city sent Velez a cease-and-desist letter which forced the Tamale Guy to stop working, fearing legal action. The city threatened to shut down his business after a West Loop resident complained that Velez was operating a business without a license. Velez found a silver lining and used the GoFundMe money to open his restaurant.
Velez’s family was unable to visit him at Rush due to coronavirus safety protocols. Instead they saw him via video chat. He wasn’t able to speak for much of his time at the hospital. He has two daughters and another son in Chicago.
The restaurant closed for 12 days but has reopened. Velez’s sister has taken over in the kitchen while her brother mends. The restaurant has also started to deliver food to bars. Velez is thankful to the city’s service industry for looking out for him through the years.
Pierre Vega has been running without Velez’s presence. Vega has been also dropping off tamales at bars. The Tamale Guy’s operation has always been a family operation.
Though he’s getting older, Velez was adamant in delivering food to bars. The bar culture was too much for him to give up. Abad Cruz doesn’t know when his father will be able to return working, but his family will care for him at home.