Illinois bars and restaurants, shuttered since mid-March as one of the pandemic’s first casualties, will get a reprieve after Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday that they can begin offering outdoor seating at month’s end.
That decision marked one of two surprise concessions the Democratic governor made to Illinois’ beleaguered business community. Pritzker also withdrew a controversial emergency rule that could subject firms that defy his pandemic orders to fines and even potential jail time.
The developments came as the Illinois legislature opened a three-day emergency session in Springfield that got off to a bumpy start when House Democrats and Republicans voted to boot state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, from its makeshift chambers for refusing to wear the required facial covering.
But the day’s big news focused on the state’s comatose hospitality industry with Pritzker’s offering that bars and restaurants can resume operations for outdoor seating when Illinois likely advances into a less-restrictive phase of Pritzker’s reopening plan later this month.
“With the right restrictions, tables 6 feet apart and away from the sidewalks, masks and distancing measures for staff and other precautions, the experts believe that these services can open at a risk comparable to other outdoor activities and give our hospitality industry a much-needed boost as they work to keep their businesses on their feet during this terrible crisis,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing.
The move amounted to a concession by Pritzker after an earlier version of his reopening plan enabled bars and restaurants to open only for delivery, pick-up and drive-through services in Phase 3.
The state’s restaurant trade association had been lobbying Pritzker to change that dictate, arguing it would preclude any on-site dining opportunities until their estimation of June 26 and deal a death blow to a significant chunk of a $3 billion per year industry.
Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, praised the governor’s move, saying it will shore up an industry in which close to 400,000 employees of bars and restaurants have been laid off and overall sales are down as much as 80% since mid-March. That’s when the governor’s order closing bars and restaurants took effect.
“Today’s announcement provides a glimmer of light at the end of this very dark tunnel. The governor’s action to allow for expanded outdoor dining options will be a benefit to many at a time when every dollar counts,” Toia said.
“The outdoor dining strategies supported by this administration extend a lifeline, helping bring back jobs and offering diners the hospitality experience they’ve been missing.”
New data released by Pritzker’s administration showed COVID-19 continues to inflict heavy losses on Illinois, claiming 147 more deaths and bringing the overall state death toll to 4,525 since March 17. The state’s total identified case count exceeded 100,000 Wednesday.
But declining hospitalization and infection rates make it nearly certain the state will proceed to Phase 3 of Pritzker’s reopening plan when the current stay-at-home order expires on May 29.
The governor said that means all state parks will reopen then; golf courses can begin allowing foursomes out on the same tee times; boating and camping involving up to 10 people will be allowed and health clubs and gyms can begin offering one-on-one personal training and offering outdoor fitness classes for up to 10 people at a time.
Additionally, nail salons, tattoo shops, hair braiders, spas and barbershops will be allowed to reopen with capacity limits and safety precautions in place, and stores can begin offering in-person shopping under similar public-health precautions.
While Pritzker offered a bouquet to the state’s ailing hospitality industry, he also backed down in pushing for enactment of an emergency rule that would have allowed his administration to impose fines of up to $2,500 and seek jail time of up to a year against any business that defies his pandemic orders and opens without authority.
House Minority Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, and Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, hammered the proposed rule as “a vast government overreach at a time when business owners are doing everything they can to stay afloat.”
A state rulemaking panel was supposed to take up the issue Wednesday, but the matter was tabled when the governor and Democratic lawmakers agreed to seek legislation instead that would establish a series of potential fines for businesses that thumb their noses at his public-health edicts.
State Sen. William Cunningham, D-Chicago, will sponsor the measure and hope to get it to the governor’s desk during this week’s abbreviated legislative session. Neither Cunningham nor the governor would offer specific details of the plan when asked Wednesday, though they made clear it would not include potential jail time as a penalty for any recalcitrant business owners.
“We’re looking forward to working with the governor to develop an important and sensible piece of legislation,” Cunningham told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Illinois House took extraordinary measures against Bailey, the downstate lawmaker who has sued the governor to block his stay-at-home order, after he refused to comply with new rules that ordered all 118 members to wear facial coverings during this week’s legislative proceedings.
House members were meeting in a downtown Springfield civic center, where temporary desks were spread six feet apart to comply with social-distancing requirements and temperature checks were necessary to gain access to the building.
Those steps, Bailey argued during a debate over adopting new House rules that dictated facial coverings for all members, were enough precaution to make masks unnecessary, and the decision whether to wear one should be his and no one else’s.
Earlier, Bailey told WGN-TV and other reporters outside the Bank of Springfield Center where the House was holding its proceedings that he had not gotten a COVID-19 test prior to entering the building.
"You want to send me or anyone else out these doors today, I understand. Go right ahead,” Bailey said during the House floor debate. “But know this: That if you do that, you're silencing millions of voices of people who've had enough. There's a new day coming in Illinois and friends, it's coming soon. I hope we can all work together to get there."
But in a blunt show of force, the full Illinois House rejected his arguments and voted to kick Bailey out of the building. The 81 to 27 roll call spotlighted a wedge within the 44-member House Republican caucus.
A dozen Republicans — including Durkin and members of his leadership team — voted to have their colleague removed from the House.
“I don't think the people that sent us here to represent them here today in all this turmoil that's going on — whatever side of the aisle you're on, whatever district you represent — that those people intended for us to focus our time on a mask showdown of whether you're wearing it or you're not,” said Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who voted to remove Bailey.
Durkin, who has a child with what he described as “an underlying health condition,” defended the rules over which Bailey chose to turn himself into a legislative martyr.
“I think these rules make sense. They are difficult, but these are difficult times,” the veteran GOP lawmaker said. “This is an historic moment. But at the end of the day, our greatest responsibility as elected officials is to protect our people to ensure their health and safety will never be challenged or compromised."
After the House voted to remove Bailey, he stood up, packed his briefcase and was escorted off the floor by two House doormen and two colleagues who voted to allow him to remain.
Bailey will be allowed into Thursday’s proceedings so long as he wears a facial covering, said House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who sponsored the resolution dictating members wear masks on the House floor.