CHICAGO – Dressed in jeans, a striped collared shirt and white sneakers emblazoned with the words MADAM and MAYOR on the heels, the 5-foot former prosecutor grooved to the syncopated beat as the first lyrics rang out: Cash on me, like I hit the lottery.

It’s not the typical image for a big-city mayor. Especially during the COVID-19 era.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday announced Chicago’s first-ever citywide celebration of graduating seniors via a video of herself dancing posted to TikTok – the most recent in a series of viral social media posts that Lightfoot’s office has used to encourage residents to stay home amid the coronavirus outbreak. More than than 22,000 Chicagoans have been infected; 962 have died.

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with USA TODAY, the Chicago mayor talked about the challenges of battling COVID-19 on the political front lines – and her personal experience of the outbreak.

Lightfoot, 57, the Windy City’s first black woman and first openly gay mayor, has gained national attention for effectively shepherding the nation’s third-largest city through the crisis of a generation. Her humor and iron-fisted resolve have provided both welcome levity and comfort for many Chicagoans watching the city’s case count creep upward.

But in a city long dominated by a history of machine politics and mayoral boses, critics warn that Lightfoot is capitalizing on the crisis to consolidate authority at City Hall.

For the new mayor navigating an impossible situation, the outbreak has meant three months of seeing the inequities within her city laid bare. It’s been a crisis colored by loss, resilience and a letter written in orange marker.

“I have a range of emotions,” Lightfoot says. “People are stepping up in really amazing ways . . . But I also recognize that, just as our strength shines through, the vulnerabilities that we all knew about, that we’ve been working on for years – in fact decades – those are also flashing like a neon sign.”