Illinois Has A New COVID-19 Plan. Here’s What It Means.

If you were confused by Gov. JB Pritzker’s new reopening plan for Illinois, you aren’t alone. We’ll walk you through it.

Keep Calm And Wash Your Hands
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Keep Calm And Wash Your Hands
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Illinois Has A New COVID-19 Plan. Here’s What It Means.

If you were confused by Gov. JB Pritzker’s new reopening plan for Illinois, you aren’t alone. We’ll walk you through it.

Almost every aspect of public life in Illinois for the last couple months has been governed by one question: What phase are we in?

In early May, Gov. JB Pritzker rolled out his plan for gradually reopening the state’s economy and easing restrictions on social interactions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. His “Restore Illinois” scheme envisioned the state progressing through five stages of reopening as we got the virus under control, each with fewer restrictions on lives and businesses than the one before.

But on Wednesday, the governor made some tweaks to Restore Illinois — and things got a bit more confusing. Here’s what you need to know about what’s new and how it might affect your life.

What’s different and what’s the same?

Illinois still has phases that determine which business and social activities are allowed, and with what restrictions.

In Phase 1, for example, you could only order pizza for delivery or pickup, and your Sunday church crowd wasn’t supposed to be larger than 10 people. By Phase 5, you could take the entire congregation out for deep-dish and sit indoors at a restaurant together while you all chow down. You get the idea.

Pritzker’s original plan also divided the state into four regions. If one region saw an increase in COVID-19 cases, the entire region — some comprising dozens of counties — could be bumped back to a more restrictive phase.

Pritzker’s new plan breaks the state into 11 regions. It also creates a menu of restrictions from which the state can pick and choose — they call these “mitigation tiers” — if one region sees an uptick in coronavirus cases. The governor’s office says this will allow the state to deal with COVID-19 hot spots in a more targeted way, instead of imposing blanket restrictions across a big geographical area.

I’m confused about the phases and the tiers. How will this work?

The old phases aren’t going anywhere. All of Illinois is currently in Phase 4 of the original plan, dubbed the “Revitalization” phase.

The tiers are new. The idea is to give the state a more exacting tool to deal with outbreaks — a scalpel versus a hacksaw.

If one of the newly-designated regions of the state starts to see a surge in cases, state officials can choose which restrictions they need to reimpose based on the circumstances of that specific outbreak. Before, the state might have just moved an entire region back to an earlier phase of across-the-board restrictions.

Consider the church and pizza example: Under the old system, a big COVID-19 surge may have meant moving an entire region back to a previous phase, which could have affected both churchgoers and pizza-eaters.

But in the tiered system, the state says it now has the public health data infrastructure to, say, trace an outbreak back to overzealous pizza-eaters in a certain region. It could then choose to stop indoor dining at bars and restaurants there, but restrictions on churches or other parts of society might stay the same.

No region of Illinois is currently under any restrictions from the new tier system, according to the governor’s office.

How does the state decide whether to impose these tier restrictions on a region?

Public health officials across Illinois say they are constantly perusing COVID-19 case data to try and stop the next big surge before it spirals out of control. So there are newly-created metrics to determine whether the state starts toughening restrictions again in one of the state’s 11 regions.

If the positivity rate of COVID-19 test results in a region averages at least 8% for three consecutive days, the governor’s office says that will trigger a return of some tougher restrictions.

There are two other ways a region might see some of these new tiered restrictions:

  • Average positivity rate increases for 7 out of 10 days + sustained increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations = more restrictions. (In plainspeak, tests increasingly coming back positive for the virus and a lot more people in the hospital with it.)

Or:

  • Average positivity rate increases for 7 out of 10 days + steep drop in hospital capacity = more restrictions. (Again, more positive tests for the virus and also less room for patients in hospitals.)

What’s the deal with these new regions?

In addition to the tiers, the governor’s plan to divvy up Illinois into new regions — 11 smaller ones instead of four big ones — is designed to support the scalpel versus hacksaw approach.

Almost from the get-go, some politicians and business owners across the state decried Pritzker’s scheme as a one-size-does-not-fit-all plan for containing the virus. Some suburban officials were irked that they were lumped together in the same region — with the same restrictions — as the City of Chicago, which is much more densely populated and has had a lot more COVID-19 cases.

The new regions aren’t as big, so the governor’s office says this allows for a “more granular approach” to applying restrictions from the new menu of tiered options. DuPage and Kane counties are now in a region together, instead of being lumped in with all the other collars. Suburban Cook County and the City of Chicago are each in regions unto themselves.

What happens if I live in a city or town — like Chicago — that has its own local reopening plan?

Nothing changes — for now.

Think of the state’s Restore Illinois plan — with all its phases and tiers — as a floor. Local governments are allowed to create their own locally-tailored reopening plans, but they can’t be less restrictive than the state’s.

However, if Chicago (for example) had a COVID-19 outbreak and did not act locally to contain it, the state says it has the authority to impose tougher restrictions from its new menu of options.

Alex Keefe is an editor for government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.