Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker outlined a long-awaited framework Tuesday to reopen regions of the state gradually from his COVID-19 shutdown, but it’s still unclear when exactly the state’s virus-driven social and economic hibernation might lift.
In revealing a five-step process to full recovery, the governor carved up the state into four regions, with each being allowed to reopen independently of the others based on its individual progress in COVID-related hospital usage, infection rates and testing capacity.
“It’s important to remember that we put this plan together not only because the state needs a plan, but because mayors need a plan, because small business people need a plan. Workers need a plan. Everyday Illinoisans need a plan,” the governor said at his daily COVID-19 briefing.
“But this plan, as vetted and data-driven as it is, is a plan responding to and recovering from a global pandemic in the 21st century,” Pritzker said. “There is no modern day precedent for this. We are quite literally writing the playbook as we go.”
In releasing the framework, the governor offered no hint of whether a huge swath of the state’s economy would remain shut down into June, though he did signal the prospects of big trade shows, concerts and sporting events resuming anytime soon in Chicago are all but off the table.
The plan’s five phases
The state already has passed through the first phase of his five-point plan, when Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order as coronavirus infections and deaths were spiraling upward exponentially.
According to the governor’s metrics, much of Illinois is now in the second phase. That’s where restrictions have been loosened slightly because data is showing the pace of infections and COVID hospitalizations flattening.
Phase three would mean COVID infections and hospitalizations are stable or declining enough to warrant the reopening of factories, offices, non-essential retail stores, barbershops and salons. Non-essential gatherings of 10 or fewer people would be allowed in this phase, he said. No region of Illinois is currently in this phase, he said.
Getting to this phase would require that a region hit specific metrics, including staying under a 20% increase in positive cases for at least two weeks and a continued decrease or plateauing of hospitalizations of patients with the virus for 28 days. That clock started May 1, when the state entered phase two, he said.
The fourth level of advancement under the governor’s plan would be reached if infection rates and hospitalizations accelerate their decline enough to allow for groups of up to 50 to congregate together, meaning bars, restaurants and schools would be safe to reopen with public health guidance.
And finally, the last stage would be a full, restriction-free reopening that would only be attained with the discovery of an effective vaccine or treatment, and no new cases over a sustained period. At that level, conventions, festivals and large events could resume in Illinois.
“This data-driven approach follows the best epidemiological recommendations, but it’s also inspired by people across our state who carry real passion to make sure their communities can begin thriving again even in the face of this pandemic,” the governor said.
Getting to phase five
The governor said there is no safe way for any region of the state to be at the final stage now. And Pritzker vowed he would not buckle to public pressure to speed up the process, particularly if it means sacrificing the public’s health.
“I spent decades in business so I understand the urge to try and flip the switch and reopen our entire economy,” he said. “Here’s the problem, that switch simply does not exist with a virus that can’t currently be eliminated by medical science, and I won’t open the door to overwhelming our hospital system and possibly tens of thousands of additional deaths by exposing everyone to the virus today just because a loud but tiny minority would like to indulge in that fantasy.”
Additionally, Pritzker said if cases start to spike in a region that has gone forward in phases, it could be brought down to a more restricted phase.
Last week, the governor’s decision to extend the state’s stay-at-home order through late May was met by protests outside the James R. Thompson Center and at the state Capitol. The demonstrations were joined by Nazi sympathizers who displayed anti-Semitic signs attacking Illinois’ Jewish governor, drawing worldwide attention.
Reaction to the plan
Early reaction to Pritzker’s plan appeared positive.
The trade association representing Illinois manufacturers praised the governor’s reopening framework.
“Illinois’ economy has been devastated by this pandemic, which has put at risk not just lives but also livelihoods,” said Mark Denzler, President and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “While many manufacturers across the state have continued operating to produce needed medical products, safe and nutritious food, and equipment for our first responders, others are eager to start production and put people back to work.
“We appreciate Gov. Pritzker’s focus on a plan that puts Illinois on a path to safely re-opening,” Denzler said. “Manufacturers are ready to unleash their full economic might to help restore our state’s economy.”
The state Senate’s top Democrat also reacted positively to the governor’s reopening plan.
“This is the kind of forward-looking plan that people across Illinois have been expecting,” said Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. “It offers hope during economic dark days while reminding everyone of how dangerous and deadly this virus remains.
“That another 176 people lost their lives to COVID-19 in the past day tells us that the enemy is still out there,” Harmon said. “We will get through this together by following the advice of medical professionals and public health experts.”
Harmon’s GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, said Illinois’ reopening plan should stipulate that regions could move to fewer restrictions within as little as 14 days, as in the case of New York state’s recent plan to ease stay-at-home restrictions.
"Ensuring the public’s health remains our top priority, and any loss of life as a result of this deadly disease is a tragedy. While it is important to have a plan that gives us hope, we need to look at in greater detail," Brady said in a statement.
Where COVID-19 cases stand now
The state has continued to see the growth of COVID-19 hospitalizations and infections begin to slow. But the daily count of fatalities associated with the virus have run high, then low, then high again in an epidemiological roller coaster that has sewn confusion about COVID-19’s deadly spread.
On Tuesday, state Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike announced 176 COVID-19 deaths in Illinois during the previous 24 hours. That total represented the highest daily death count since the first fatality from the virus was recorded on March 17th.
Tuesday’s record high total came after the state reported 46 deaths on Monday – the lowest one-day count in the previous two weeks. The statewide COVID-19 death toll now stands at 2,838.
Meanwhile, in another COVID-19 development, the financial toll from the virus began showing up with a vengeance in the state’s balance sheets.
A report by the budget-forecasting arm of the General Assembly showed that state revenues fell by a whopping $2.7 billion in April compared to previous year monthly totals. Declines in state income and sales tax revenues, coupled with pushing the state tax-filing deadline from April to July, were the primary drivers in those losses.
“As we move forward over the remaining months of the fiscal year, its consequences are expected to continue as job losses, impacts on business, and severely curtailed consumer activity will add to the state’s fiscal stress,” the report from the state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability stated.