A year into a pandemic that has killed nearly 21,000 Illinoisans, Gov. JB Pritzker says he feels the highest level of confidence yet the crisis may soon be ending even as support for his COVID-19 strategies appears to be waning.
“I’ve not been this optimistic throughout the entire year that we’ve experienced — until now,” the governor said Monday.
“My confidence level comes from the data. My confidence level also comes from the increasing supply of vaccines that are coming into the state and our ability to put those into people’s arms,” he said with more than 1.5 million Illinoisans fully vaccinated.
As new coronavirus cases hit their lowest level in 244 days, Pritzker sat down for a wide-ranging interview with WBEZ that touched on his possible reelection plans, the sobering choices he had to make between “a lot of people dying and fewer people dying” and the need to persuade millions of potentially vaccine-skeptical adherents of ex-President Donald Trump in Illinois to get their shots.
The governor also expressed regret that he hadn’t pushed mask-wearing earlier, lambasted Republicans for having displayed “very little leadership” in the state public-health catastrophe and predicted time will be the “ultimate judge” of his efforts to handle the pandemic.
The first-term Chicago Democrat is at a crossroads both in waging his fight against the ravages of the coronavirus and in assessing his political future ahead of the fast-approaching 2022 election cycle. He still hasn’t made his intentions known regarding a second term, and his track record on the pandemic undoubtedly figures to be a defining issue.
For now, however, Pritzker said his own political ambitions are on hold.
“I don’t see any need to make a decision like that or to make any announcements about that, especially in the middle of what is a very significant process that we’re going through, something we’ve never had to do before, which is building the infrastructure for vaccinating everybody in the state of Illinois and then at the same time trying to make sure we get everybody back to work,” the governor said.
“Those are things that I just want to focus on every day. I don’t want to focus on the politics,” he continued. “That’s something that could be considered months from now.”
As pandemic wore on, Pritzker’s approval of handling waned
The state is administering enough vaccinations every day to cover nearly 1% of the state’s 12.7-million population. As of Monday, state public health data showed slightly under 12% of all Illinoisans are fully vaccinated.
Even as the vaccination ramp-up rapidly escalates, potential trouble looms for Pritzker with the state’s electorate over his handling of the pandemic.
Early on, polling consistently showed Illinoisans were pleased by Pritzker’s efforts. But as 2020 progressed and COVID-19 case counts mushroomed in the fall and winter, the governor’s numbers dropped and now are at their lowest point since the pandemic began in one poll.
Last April, an analysis of how governors around the country are regarded for their handling of the pandemic showed 63% of Illinoisans surveyed had a positive view of Pritzker’s handling of the pandemic.
But by the end of last month, that approval rating had dropped to beneath 45%, according to ongoing polling by a consortium of Northwestern University, Northeastern University, Harvard University and Rutgers University.
The universities’ polling showed Pritzker rated in the middle of the pack among the nation’s governors, with 26 other states’ chief executives having higher pandemic approval ratings at the end of February.
“To answer your question on why the approval has dropped, it may be because of the move away from the public eye,” said Jennifer Lin, a researcher at Northwestern’s Political Science Research Lab, which is involved in the polling effort.
“We see some of these same patterns across other states,” she said. “Governors were once the center at the start of the pandemic. But as the times changed and the coverage was not about their policies all the time, these numbers moved more toward ‘normal’ approval.”
On Monday, Pritzker brushed off any notion of sagging poll numbers.
“I’m not worried about polling data. What I’m listening to are the scientists and the facts. The mitigations, as they’ve been put in place and as we’ve altered them over time, have been based upon those facts and those scientists’ recommendations,” the governor said.
“I think the ultimate judge by people will be years from now when they look back and see, how did we do at keeping people safe and keeping our economy going at the same time,” he said.
Mask mandates and unemployment
In March 2020, Pritzker imposed a stay-at-home order that followed a similar order by California by only a day, with states across the country following suit. His move in Illinois was a calculation, he said, driven by modeling that showed tens of thousands of deaths could occur here if social distancing and other mitigation efforts weren’t imposed.
“The choices, as many of the choices have been throughout the last year, were between a lot of people dying or fewer people dying,” the governor said, noting that he has spoken to “many, many dozens of families” of COVID-19 victims and had personal friends die from the illness.
Pritzker also imposed a statewide mask mandate on May 1 following a handful of other states that put the requirement in place earlier.
“If I could tell myself a year ago one thing that we should do, it would be [to] put the mask mandate in earlier,” the governor said when asked about any regrets he has surrounding his pandemic decision-making.
Republicans, though, have focused on other perceived missteps by the governor, including on the administration’s struggles to handle the massive infusion of unemployment claims by Illinoisans who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
The state was slow to improve already-antiquated computer systems at the Illinois Department of Employment Security to process claims more quickly, resulting in long delays in getting benefits to people who were out of work.
Last April, the first full month of the pandemic, Illinois had lost more than 785,000 jobs compared to the same time in 2019. Steadily, some of those jobs have come back this year. But still, at the end of December, Illinois had about 419,000 fewer jobs than it did exactly a year earlier, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accounting.
Republican pushback on Pritzker management
Another GOP criticism directed at Pritzker involves his administration’s inability to safeguard residents of Illinois’ state-run veterans’ homes from COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, nearly 80 COVID-19 deaths have been reported at state-run veterans’ homes, with 36 of those fatalities reported at the LaSalle veterans’ home alone.
“It does get to this level of (a) …question of competence,” said Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, one of Pritzker’s harshest critics in the General Assembly. “Just because you have a pandemic going on, just because you have a long-term crisis, doesn’t mean the governor should get a pass in regards to this level of mismanagement on these and other things.”
McConchie, who gave Pritzker a D for his management of the crisis, suggested the governor should have included legislators when deciding his response to the pandemic. It’s been a frequent critique of the Democratic governor from Republican members of the General Assembly, who hold a super-minority of seats in both the House and Senate.
But Pritzker shrugged off any negativity from the newly seated top Senate Republican.
“It’s clear there’s a lot of politics involved here. The Senate minority leader, Dan McConchie, [has] consistently been wrong in his criticism. Remember that it’s his caucus and members of his caucus that have been frequently the ones who are telling people ‘don’t worry about wearing masks, don’t worry about mitigations,’ that in fact have seen deaths and people getting sick in their areas,” the governor said.
“There’s been very little leadership on the part of Republicans, in general, and specifically here in Illinois,” Pritzker said.
The barbs from Republicans aren’t necessarily the governor’s only problem with the GOP.
New polling by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist College shows a high level of vaccine resistance among supporters of Donald Trump. The March 11 survey found 47% of Trump’s backers said they have no plan to get vaccinated.
Last November, more than 2.4 million Illinoisans cast votes for Trump, leaving Pritzker with a potentially sizable bloc to persuade on top of Black and Latinx residents who have been hesitant to be vaccinated, after years of distrust related to failures of health support.
“Our jobs are to save lives of Republicans and Democrats. No matter who it is in the state of Illinois, my job is to work to keep them safe. I’m always going to do that,” Pritzker said.
“My view is that it’s unfortunate that Donald Trump created this politicization of the coronavirus,” Pritzker continued. “Just as [with] some of the QAnon followers, it’s taken them time to kind of get that brainwashing out of their minds, I think it’s the same for the people who follow Donald Trump. They need to come to the realization that the facts and the science tell you that these vaccines are going to keep you safe, and you ought to go get vaccinated.”
The governing of business in a pandemic
The vaccination effort is perhaps the chief focus of the governor, but curing Illinois’ economic ills ranks as a close second. Many of the lost jobs come from businesses that had to shut down or drastically curtail their operations as a result of the governor’s pandemic-driven actions, particularly within the state’s retail and hospitality sectors.
Representatives from both of those industries appear to understand the broader challenges confronting Pritzker but in at least one instance grade the governor on somewhat of a pandemic curve.
Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he would give the governor a B- for his handling of the pandemic.
Karr acknowledged Pritzker has had to tackle a rapidly-evolving situation where no one “had a true appreciation for what was coming and how quickly,” and that aides have been communicative to his group. State business interruption grants the governor spearheaded also have been “appreciated” even if only a small percentage of applicants got them.
But there have been bumps.
There was no advance warning of a mask mandate last spring that put retailers in an unexpected — and unwanted — position of having to enforce the governor’s order. Pritzker also proposed removing business tax credits as part of his fiscal 2022 state budget. And there was an unwillingness to delay multiple scheduled minimum-wage increases during 2020. The rate is now $11 an hour, up from $8.25 an hour at the end of 2019.
“It’s unconscionable we’re increasing employment costs 33% in 366 days in the middle of a pandemic,” Karr said.
Likewise, Illinois Restaurant Association President and CEO Sam Toia did not give Pritzker harsh reviews even though his industry has taken a huge economic hit due to the virus.
He estimated 124,000 Illinois jobs have been lost in the restaurant and bar industry between March and December 2020. And Toia pointed to national industry projections showing that one in five Illinois restaurants or bars could permanently close by the time the pandemic ends.
In the short term, Toia said he would like to see Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot offer clarity on when conventions and trade shows will be up and going again. He’s also been lobbying the state to make restaurant workers eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine before the process is opened up to the public at large.
“We are not saying that we should be at 100% capacity right now,” Toia said, referring to the state’s restrictions on restaurant seating. “We do agree with what the governor has laid out right now.”
For now, the governor isn’t showing his hand on when he’s prepared to embrace a full reopening of Illinois, which is dependent on the continued brisk pace of vaccinations and on what by every account is a set of miracle drugs keeping dangerous new strains of the virus in check.
In other words, one step at a time — just as it’s been the past 12 months.
“I’d just remind you, with the variants out there, we’ve been warned by the best experts in the world that we need to be cautious,” Pritzker said, “even though I’m very optimistic.”