Critics Rail Against Gov. JB Pritzker's COVID-19 Reopening Plan

The governor’s plan to let businesses reopen faces criticism from House Republican leader, Illinois’ ailing restaurant industry

COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker V2
AP Photo / WBEZ
COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker V2
AP Photo / WBEZ

Critics Rail Against Gov. JB Pritzker's COVID-19 Reopening Plan

The governor’s plan to let businesses reopen faces criticism from House Republican leader, Illinois’ ailing restaurant industry

Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to slowly reawaken the state’s economy from its deep COVID-19 paralysis faced attacks Wednesday from the state’s ailing restaurant industry and from the top Illinois House Republican, who called it “unworkable.”

The Democratic governor proposed this week carving the state into four sections, allowing each region to reopen at its own pace based on how well it was recovering from the coronavirus and on its hospitals’ overall capacity to treat virus-stricken patients.

But the five-stage pathway Pritzker outlined for eventual, full pre-pandemic normalcy faced complaints. Critics worried his plan would thrust scores of restaurants into bankruptcy and that state lawmakers sidelined by the pandemic should have a greater say in the reopening process.

“The plan is set up in an unworkable way and fashion,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, who called for the legislature to reconvene to assert itself against Pritzker’s extensive use of emergency powers. “This plan presumes that the governor shall rule the state for the upcoming months and possibly much longer if the vaccination [for COVID-19] is not available.”

The Illinois Restaurant Association said its assessment of Pritzker’s plan showed that the earliest restaurants in the state could reopen dining rooms would be June 26, which the trade group predicted could be fatal to a vast number of eateries across the state.

“Restaurants will not survive in Illinois for much longer without direct, targeted relief at all levels of government,” the association said in a statement published on its website.

The industry, which employed nearly 600,000 people in March at nearly 26,000 bars and restaurants, is in a state of collapse, with 321,000 of those employees either laid off or furloughed since March. That’s when Pritzker ordered bars and restaurants closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, though the governor has permitted restaurants to offer delivery and curbside meal pick-up.

At his daily briefing Wednesday, which initially focused on the virus’ harsh impact on Latinos, Pritzker displayed empathy for the restaurant industry’s plight but made clear that medical science and consumer confidence are the ultimate arbiters of when restaurants will regain their footing in Illinois — not him.

“I’m not the one that’s writing those rules for restaurants and bars. It is doctors and epidemiologists that I’m listening to,” the governor said. “Even if you flung the doors open on bars and restaurants today, I think many people would say, ‘I don’t want to be in a public location like that where it is more likely that things might be transmitted.’ ”

The governor also rebuffed Durkin’s call to herd state lawmakers back to Springfield, making the same argument as with restaurants: Gathering in a large group of any kind, while COVID-19 is still not fully tamed in Illinois, could carry lethal results.

“There are legislators who are concerned about getting together, 177 of them. Add in...the staff who work for them, not to mention all the other people who work in the capital and maybe members of the public. That could potentially be a dangerous situation,” the governor said.

Traditionally, May would be the legislative homestretch in Springfield, when the General Assembly would be finalizing a new state budget and passing hundreds of bills. But there were no signs Wednesday that the Democratic-led majorities were eager to head back to the statehouse any time soon.

“First and foremost, we need to ensure the health and safety of members, staff and the general public is considered at all times when thinking about a return to Springfield. While the governor’s actions have reduced the curve and saved lives, it’s clear that Illinois is not out of the woods,” Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said in a statement.

“While I am eager to see a return to normalcy, we are talking about people’s lives, and any plan for a return to Springfield must have the health and safety of all those involved as a top priority, including the communities the members represent,” Madigan said.

At some point, Pritzker will need lawmakers to pass a budget to cover spending for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. The governor has warned that COVID-19 could trigger a budget shortfall of more than $10 billion during the next two years.

But so long as he has an active emergency declaration in effect because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor is free to control the state’s response to the public health crisis, including his stay-at-home order that runs through May 30.

The criticism Pritzker has gotten over his regional reopening plan is arguably the bluntest he’s received during his two-month management of the pandemic, which so far has drawn a generally favorable response in recent statewide polling.

But questions surrounded his reopening plan, including its requirement of 28 days of recovery before a region could advance to fewer restrictions and its assignment of demographically and geographically disparate communities like Chicago and DuPage County into the same region.

Pritzker reiterated that his plan allows for a decline or plateau of COVID-19 hospitalizations over 28 days, among other criteria. That, he argued, allows for more flexibility than guidance from the federal government that calls for 14 continuous days of declining cases.

The White House’s guidance on a phase-in plan is distinctly different from Illinois, with only three phases, with the third being largely restriction-free reopening. The White House’s guidelines also allow for reopening after 14 days, but it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, as the guidelines suggest a “downward trajectory” in total number of cases for that sustained period of time, or the same downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests within two weeks, among other criteria.

The White House doesn’t mention hospitalization rates nor the capacity of hospitals as part of its metrics, only to say that hospitals should be able to withstand a surge.

Other states have also taken a page from the federal government’s 14-day approach, but have modifications of their own.

New York, for example, announced a four-phase, 10-region plan this week. In it, the state established six criteria for moving forward from phase to phase, such as hospitalizations must show a continued 14-day decline and a hospital bed vacancy rate of 30%.

In other COVID-19 developments Wednesday, Pritzker confirmed that the Latinx population has been hit particularly hard by the virus, with a 60% positivity rate among those tested and who checked a box identifying their race or ethnicity as Latinx or hispanic. That’s nearly three times the state’s average positivity rate, Pritkzer said. And 40% of new cases this week were in the Latino community.

Public health officials announced 136 more people have died from the virus, and 2,270 new cases identified in the past 24 hours. That makes a total of 2,974 deaths and 68,232 cases since the pandemic started.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s public health director, pointed to efforts to ensure the Latinx community has access to testing, with 120 sites across the state offering free tests, and nearly one third of all testing sites in the state being in Latinx communities. But, she said the word needs to spread about these tests’ availability in the communities they’re trying to serve.

In other highlights from Pritzker’s briefing:

  • No State Fair: Pritzker predicted that it’s “highly unlikely” Illinois will hold its state fairs in Springfield and far downstate DuQuoin this year. But he couched that news with the prospects of an effective treatment for COVID-19 being regularly available by the time the Springfield event is scheduled between August 13 and the 23. “Maybe by the time these larger events roll around, we might be able to have a treatment that’s very effective and then I think there is the possibility (that they aren’t canceled),” he said.

  • Mother’s Day hugs are not a good idea: Dr. Ngozi Ezike delivered the bad news: “Virtual hugs are still, I would say, the order of the day,” she said. She warned that anyone who has not been sheltering in place with their mother is putting them at risk of infection if they meet in close proximity for Mother’s Day on Sunday. “Expanding your circle will increase your risk of infection, it’s that simple,” she said.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.