Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker moved Tuesday to stave off a possible quadrupling of COVID-19 deaths in the state by March with a new pandemic crackdown aimed at keeping people in their homes and more tightly limiting outside interactions.
The toughened approach came as Pritzker lashed out at “Republican elected officials, a network of propaganda publications in the state and some radio shock jocks” for circulating a purported picture of the governor’s teen-age daughter allegedly not adhering to COVID-19 mitigation rules. But the governor said his daughter was not in the photo.
Pritzker’s extraordinary show of pique in defense of his family represented an unexpected and emotional subtext to his latest plan to plunge Illinois deeper into coronavirus restrictions as cases grow exponentially.
Pritzker’s plan encourages companies to let their employees work from home, imposes tighter capacity limits on retail stores, caps attendance at funerals, and discourages in-home gatherings that involve anyone other than immediate family members.
The mitigations that go into effect Friday are a step short of an outright stay-at-home order, like the one Pritzker implemented last spring for two months. He hopes this latest framework will avert a human catastrophe during the next four months.
“Without new interventions, projections show between 17,000 and 45,000 additional deaths in Illinois between now and March 1st of 2021, assuming hospitals are able to continue providing the optimal level of care,” the Democratic governor said.
“That is one to four times what has been experienced between the beginning of the pandemic and today,” Pritzker said. “We can’t let that happen.”
The outline will be part of a new executive order the Democratic governor is expected to file by Wednesday morning.
It comes as the COVID-19 transmission rates are growing in Illinois exponentially, straining hospital capacity and setting daily records on new cases that are expected to lead to new spikes in deaths in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, the state reported 12,601 new COVID-19 cases and an additional 97 deaths, bringing the overall coronavirus death toll in Illinois to 10,875. Hospitalizations and the use of intensive-care rooms for virus patients stand at their highest levels since last May.
The governor laid out new data that shows the newest coronavirus wave is poised to become as lethal – or more so – than what Illinois endured last spring.
Modeling done for the state by Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana forecasts COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care unit occupancy could be as much as five times higher than the spring wave, peaking in January.
That’s also when deaths could reach a breathtaking rate of 1,000 per day, tapering back down to current levels by March 2021, under some of the state modeling presented by the governor and his Public Health Director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike.
“People are going to be frustrated, Ezike told reporters. “People are going to be upset. People are going to be downright angry. “Right now, this virus has backed us into a corner, and we are left making insanely difficult and weighty decisions.”
The plan Pritzker laid out encourages employers, whenever possible, to let employees do their work from home – something many Illinoisans have done since the start of the pandemic but which isn’t a part of any existing, formal guidance from the state.
Under the governor’s new plan, casinos, theaters and museums must close while gyms will continue to be allowed to operate at 25% capacity and only on an appointment basis. Group fitness classes will be prohibited and locker rooms will close.
Retail stores can remain open but with only 25% capacity, while grocery stores and pharmacies can operate at 50% capacity.
Salons and barbershops will be permitted to remain open but only if stylists and patrons remain fully masked.
Funerals are limited to only 10 family members of the deceased.
Restaurants and bars cannot offer indoor service under the governor’s order and must close no later than 11 p.m. Dining is allowed outdoors, but tables cannot exceed six people and must be spaced six feet apart. Multiple parties aren’t allowed at the same table.
The plan permits daycare centers to remain open, and it does not shut the door on in-person attendance in public and private schools. Most school systems across the state already have migrated to virtual home-based classrooms. Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday announced plans to resume some in-person classes starting in January.
And finally, as Thanksgiving approaches next week, home gatherings should be limited only to immediate family members.
“To be very clear, we are relying on you here,” Pritzker said. “Nobody will go door-to-door to check on you. But we’re asking people to hold themselves and each other accountable. The more we can avoid gatherings now, especially indoors with the people that we don’t already live with, the more likely we are to be able to celebrate the December holidays with less risk to our loved ones and ourselves.”
As for the governor’s own Thanksgiving plans, Pritzker said he intends to observe the holiday in Chicago with his son, while his wife and teen-age daughter observe it at their Florida residence.
The subject of his daughter triggered an emotional and angry outburst from Pritzker on Tuesday, as he attacked right-wing media for highlighting a photo purportedly showing her in a large outdoor gathering at a Chicago restaurant, oblivious to COVID-19 mandates.
“That was a lie. It wasn’t her, but the picture falsely identifying her started making the rounds on social media helped along by the trolls who permeate the social media platform these days,” Pritzker said.
Additionally, the governor took aim at a lawyer who has repeatedly sued him over his public-health orders – losing judgments multiple times – for posting what Pritzker called a $1,000 “bounty” for anyone who produced a photograph of him “out celebrating Thanksgiving with friends and family.”
“Put yourself in the shoes of a high-school girl who’s being weaponized against her father by his political opponents, weaponized with lies,” the governor said.
“I’m an adult, and I can handle people throwing my face up on anti-Semitic picket signs likening me to Hitler,” said Pritzker, who is Jewish. “This kind of vitriol is apparently what I have to deal with to keep the state and its people safe. But my kids – my kids – are off limits.”
Both Republican legislative leaders – Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs – jumped to the governor’s defense. In separate statements, both men said any attacks against politicians’ children are “off-limits.”
Earlier Tuesday, Chicago officials acknowledged testing sites are getting very backed up in the city as the virus surges.
“We know the lines are long,” Arwady said. “I encourage people to pre-register wherever they can. The best place to check first and foremost always is with your own doctor because if you could get a test through your doctor. That’s where we’d most like you to get a test ,anyway, because then you’re connected into the medical care.”
Arwady said Tuesday officials are working on expanding testing sites and figuring out how to manage outdoor testing through the winter. She again called on the federal government to pass a second stimulus package to help fund both testing and eventual distribution of a vaccine.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyarnold. Becky Vevea contributed reporting for this story. Follow her @beckyvevea.