Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker again threatened that he “won’t hesitate” to impose stricter measures on the residents and businesses of the state if the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb.
Statewide, Illinois has seen a slight uptick in case numbers and the percentage of those who are tested being positive since entering Phase 4 of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, which allowed for the reopening of indoor dining and bars. That uptick has come as states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California have seen an explosive growth in case numbers, forcing some to close down bars or require face coverings while in public.
Around Chicago and its suburbs, for instance, 4% of those tested over the past seven days have seen positive test results while 32% of the region’s hospital beds remain available to take on patients. The region remains in-line with the metrics Pritzker’s office established for being in Phase 4.
“We’re watching these numbers very, very closely,” Pritzker told reporters at an unrelated news conference on Tuesday. “I don’t wake up on any day and not look at those numbers first thing.”
While the latest data from the Illinois Department of Public Health are a far cry from Illinois’ numbers at the end of April and early May — when more than 21% of those tested across the state were positive for COVID-19 — the recent increase in cases has come as the state continues to increase its testing capabilities. The number of tests in the state has more than doubled since early May. Nonetheless, Pritzker faced repeated questions as to whether he intends to impose stricter guidelines on industries that have been allowed to reopen since June 26.
There is now more data about the spread of the virus in certain environments than previously known, he said, that could change how the state imposes further restrictions. Pritzker singled out indoor bars — including bars at restaurants — as locations that could have “significant transmission” if not managed properly.
“That was not well-known early on,” Pritzker said. “We had an idea. We imposed restrictions. But we didn’t have really enough data along the way. The data is now in.”
Pritzker also reiterated his plan to let individual school districts decide their own approach to restarting in-class education when the school year starts — or to continue classes remotely — as opposed to a statewide mandate.
“Let’s start with our No. 1 priority which is the health and safety of our students, of teachers, of paraprofessionals and everybody that’s involved in the schools including the parents,” he said. “Not just pushing everybody back into schools because the president says that he’d like to see that, but rather being careful.”
The Illinois State Board of Education has given guidance for in-class education that includes the widespread use of facial coverings and social distancing when possible. Gatherings of more than 50 people in one space are not permitted.
Pritzker said he’s not engaging on the details for each district’s decision-making, including Chicago Public Schools. CPS has not yet announced whether classes will be remote or in-person yet.
But Pritzker did announce Tuesday he’s dedicating $108.5 million from the federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds to public pre-K-12 schools and public two- and four-year schools to address challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kindergarten through 12th grade public schools will receive $50 million to try and close the digital divide, training for parents and teachers and supports to help students’ social and emotional needs. Early childhood programs will receive $10 million, including a text message service to help parents support children’s learning at home.
Public universities and community colleges will receive $46 million to help address student needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic so students can remain in school. Three million will be set aside for grants to enroll and retain first-generation and high-need students.
This GEER funding is on top of $569 million awarded to the Illinois State Board of Education through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which is going to pre-K-12 school districts to plan for the upcoming school year.
Pritzker also vented about criticism for not imposing looser restrictions as part of Phase 4. Earlier in the day, Illinois State House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said he’s frustrated that Pritzker hasn’t worked with legislators on COVID-19-related guidelines for various industries.
“This is not a kingdom,” Durkin said. “If he’s going to take up any other COVID-related restrictions, he has to do it with the legislative bodies.”
Earlier this year, Pritzker asked the legislature to pass a law that would allow the state to fine businesses that don’t comply with COVID-19–related guidelines, such as capping how many people can be inside at one time. The alternative, Pritzker said, is a much harsher penalty of revoking a business’s professional license, such as a restaurant’s liquor license. The legislature never debated the issue.
Durkin also said he will not be attending his party’s national political convention in Florida next month because “it’s not going to be a safe environment.”
WBEZ reporter Kate McGee contributed.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.