Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker vowed Wednesday to remain on the sidelines on the high-stakes questions of where a new Chicago casino should go and when it should open, but he wants Mayor Lori Lightfoot to get the gambling venue up and going quickly.
The governor also said he had no idea when the state’s 10 other casinos — all darkened by the pandemic since early March — would reopen or when Illinois horse racing tracks would be able to conduct their first live races.
The focus on the state’s near dormant gambling industry came on a day when Illinois set another grim milestone in the COVID-19 era, surpassing 5,000 deaths since the virus claimed the first Illinoisan 10 weeks ago.
On Saturday, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation that would reduce the tax burden on the proposed Chicago casino, which never took flight since being authorized by the governor and legislature last year.
Pritzker appears poised to sign the legislation, which the mayor and others believe will make the proposed casino more lucrative and, more importantly, attractive to potential operators that would run the venue.
The governor said he does not intend to interject an opinion on where the casino should be built or on a specific timetable to get the facility ready for its first bettors. He just wants it to be fast.
“The sooner that they’re able to get it up and running, by the way, the better off people of Illinois will be — the people of Chicago, too — because there’s a benefit not just to the city of Chicago, but a lot of revenue will come to the state of Illinois,” the governor said at his daily COVID-19 briefing.
Lightfoot has not said specifically where she wants the city casino, which carries big financial implications for the city budget. Proceeds from the facility will go toward the city’s vastly underfunded police and fire pension systems.
The state will share in the proceeds, earmarking revenues from the new casino into a $45 billion infrastructure program Pritzker and lawmakers put into place last year.
With the state’s COVID-19 pandemic still claiming lives and sickening people by the thousands, equally important questions confront the state’s existing casino industry, which has been dark because of the pandemic since March 16.
The more than 10-week period where slot machines, roulette wheels and blackjack tables have been dormant have represented a financial hit for Illinois. It’s plausible lost casino revenues to Springfield could be more than $100 million thus far if the pandemic had not shut down casinos for the past 10 weeks and gambling had been at the same pace as last year.
In 2019, for example, Illinois’ treasury pocketed $57.2 million in casino revenues for the months of April and May. Half of last year’s March take for the state totaled about $12 million. And state casino revenues from June 2019 topped $33 million.
The new, less-restrictive phase Illinois is about to enter under the governor’s pandemic reopening plan does not include casinos, meaning their opening — even with strict capacity limits — is at least another month away, if not longer.
Pritzker couldn’t say when a reopening for casinos might be.
“Honestly, it’s not something in Phase 3. There certainly are casino owners in the state of Illinois who have presented their ideas for that, but it’s not going to be happening in the next phase, so I have to admit I haven’t focused specifically on it,” he said.
The governor said he has been watching Las Vegas attempt to reopen its casinos but said he’s most interested in what medical professionals tell him is safe before granting a reprieve to Illinois gambling venues.
“In the end, I don’t know what the doctors will say or how long it will take them to agree on something. I know everybody is looking at Las Vegas and wondering how they’re going to be able to do it. They’ve got rules in place,” Pritzker said. “I have to say it looks difficult to me.”
The governor also offered no clear time frame for the resumption of live horse-racing in Illinois, other than to say no races will take place June 1.
“I think live horse-racing will restart. I can’t tell you what date, but again, it will be like other spectator sports where it would have to run without spectators at least to begin with,” he said.
Overshadowing questions about the state’s gambling industry were numbers of more grave nature.
Pritzker announced Wednesday that 160 more Illinoisans died during the past 24 hours from COVID-19, bringing the statewide death toll to 5,083.
“These are real people whose lives came to an end because of this pandemic,” the governor said. “They are grandparents and uncles and aunts, and parents, cousins, children, friends. They had whole lives that were cut short because COVID-19 knows no boundaries and only seeks to destroy. We can never forget that,” the governor said. “May the memories of those who were lost be for a blessing.”
The one glimmer of hope in state COVID-19 data released was a continuing decline in the number of positive tests for coronavirus. In the past 24 hours, out of more than 17,100 tests administered, 1,111 came back positive, representing a positivity rate statewide of 6.47%.
In Chicago and the collar counties, where the state’s largest volume of COVID-19 cases have occurred, the positivity rate has declined from 23% to 14% since May 1, state public health data show.
Meanwhile, in other developments:
No to nursing home visitors: It’s become an all too common sight for those with loved ones in nursing homes: family members looking in room windows from the outside because of no-visitors-allowed policies that have sprung up since the pandemic took root. Pritzker said Wednesday he sees no end in sight on such visiting prohibitions. “I can only tell you I’m listening to [state Public Health Director Ngozi] Ezike and others at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] when I tell you at least for the time-being, we can’t allow visitors back in,” the governor said. WBEZ has reported that more than 31% of the state’s nursing homes have had COVID-19 cases, and nursing homes accounted for 49% of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
New data on COVID-19 recovery: Among the trove of COVID-19 data available on the state Public Health department’s website is a new data point: the percentage of people who tested positive for the illness that have recovered. To date, 92% of the more than 114,000 who have tested positive for coronavirus have recovered. “What we’re trying to do is make sure people understand that when you get COVID-19, it is not a death sentence,” Pritzker said when asked about the new data.
First church reopenings, then movie theaters: Under the governor’s reopening plan, Illinois movie theaters couldn’t reopen until the state enters Phase 4 of his plan, which couldn’t occur until late June at the earliest. But some proprietors have been pressing Pritzker to make accommodations for the shuttered industry in the phase Illinois is about to enter this week. Still, the governor is rejecting the idea and said theaters will have to wait until plans get perfected for churches to reopen. “I know theater owners would like it in Phase 3, but it’s very difficult to imagine it happening,” he said. “Having said that, as we look at how we might do things in churches, the way that seating works out in a church looks very much, acts very much, like it would in a theater, for example. We’ll be looking at how we can work these out in churches then move to the question of theaters.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.