Facing an outcry from Republicans and business groups, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Monday defended his administration’s push to impose potential fines and even jail time against small businesses that flout his pandemic closure order and reopen without authority.
Late last Friday, Pritzker’s administration filed an emergency rule with a state panel that would authorize local state’s attorneys to charge restaurants, bars, gyms, barber shops and salons with a misdemeanor if they reopen before the governor gives the go-ahead.
Pritzker said the move, which he likened to a traffic citation, was designed to clarify his emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and that it empowers local law enforcement with a new compliance option that is less severe than shutdowns or license revocations.
“This additional enforcement tool, this citation, causes less harm to a business than a total shutdown or loss of a license but gives local governments and law enforcement the ability to do their job. Many other states have enforcement tools like this, but not Illinois — until now,” the governor said at his daily COVID-19 press briefing.
“We don’t want to have to pull licenses from people. We don’t want to shut a business down. We want people to comply. We want to give this type of citation as an alternative,” the governor said.
Dozens of bars across the state have been served cease-and-desist letters by state liquor control regulators after the businesses openly defied Pritzker’s office’s pandemic-related closure order that dates back to March 16. At least one of those taverns has sued Pritzker’s administration over its order.
The governor has defended his order and newly filed emergency rule as a means to slow the transmission of the highly-contagious coronavirus, which claimed 59 more Illinoisans in the past 24 hours, bringing the state’s total COVID-19 death toll to 4,234.
But top Senate and House Republicans assailed the latest compliance step as a legal overreach that only deepens division within Illinois.
“I’m not an attorney, but I can tell you I just think this is wrong. People think it’s wrong,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington. “We can and need to unify ourselves to bring ourselves together. This is just more division.”
Brady has called on lawmakers to hold hearings on Pritzker’s phased-in, reopening approach, but the governor has dismissed that as political grandstanding on the part of the Senate Republican leader, a 2010 GOP candidate for governor.
Under Illinois law, a class A misdemeanor — which is the penalty that could be imposed under the rule against recalcitrant businesses by Pritzker-allied state’s attorneys around the state — calls for up to one year in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine if there is a conviction.
Several downstate state’s attorneys have vowed not to enforce Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.
The rule could be addressed as early as Wednesday by a state rule-making panel called the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. That’s when lawmakers reconvene in Springfield for a three-day special session.
For Pritzker, political odds suggest no immediate roadblocks from the bipartisan 12-member commission, despite the panel being composed of six Democrats and six Republicans. Opponents would have to muster a supermajority vote to block the rule from taking effect, meaning two Democrats would have to break ranks with the governor, which is unlikely.
Despite that political likelihood, the head of one of Illinois’ leading business groups said the rule should be blocked or withdrawn because state law doesn’t give authority to the governor, even in public-health emergencies, to create a new type of crime at will.
“I’ve talked to both Republicans and Democrats who are very, very concerned this looks like a new criminal offense by decree,” said Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody would be better served for the governor to pull this back.”
Pritzker has issued a series of recent hints that he will relax business closures after his existing stay-at-home order expires on May 30. COVID-19 infection rates and related hospital admissions have been steady or declining.
Meanwhile, in other COVID-19 developments:
Unemployment data breach: Illinois Republicans are calling for the state’s auditor general to investigate a data breach into the state’s unemployment system. A user discovered over the weekend that the new unemployment system for gig workers published Social Security numbers of some of those seeking benefits. Pritzker says his administration is investigating what happened, and that the firm Deloitte, which built the system, is offering credit monitoring for those affected. “This is a major lapse of privacy for people who’ve lost their jobs,” House GOP Leader Jim Durkin said. “This isn’t exactly like cleaning up milk that’s been spilled on the floor. This is greater than that.”
Worries about personal safety: Pritzker went on the attack against a handful of GOP officials who were part of a Reopen Illinois demonstration at the Capitol, where some protesters waved swastika-emblazoned signs that compared the state’s Jewish governor to Adolph Hitler. Included among officeholders or GOP candidates who spoke at the rally were Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia; Rep. Chris Miller, R-Oakland; and former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, who is running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. “They were perfectly willing to stand up and speak in front of that crowd. That was OK with them,” an incredulous Pritzker said. “It’s not OK with me, and they are in fact putting people in danger. One of those speakers, the GOP U.S. senate candidate actually called out Sen. Dick Durbin’s home address and told people they should go to his house and surround it. That’s dangerous.”
Contact-tracing pilot programs: Pritzker said just 29% of positive COVID-19 cases in the state are taking part in any kind of contact tracing program, in which those who may have come in contact with someone who tested positive can be alerted. The governor’s goal is to see that number climb to at least 60%. As part of the state’s effort to increase its contact tracing program with local health departments across Illinois, Pritzker announced Monday an app to assist those who test positive, along with a pilot program in Lake County and St. Clair County to coordinate local and statewide contact tracing efforts.
Illinois horse racing talks underway: Pritzker said his administration is trying to find ways to reopen the horse racing tracks, perhaps without crowds like Major League Baseball is considering. “We’re looking at all the alternatives,” Pritzker said.
Aim for election legislation: Pritzker said he wants legislators to pass a bill that would make it easier for Illinois voters to cast their November ballot by mail. State lawmakers are scheduled for a three-day session starting Wednesday after being adjourned indefinitely during the normal spring session. “Fewer people going to the ballot box in November is better for all of us in terms of keeping people healthy and safe,” Pritzker said. The governor added that he would like to also see provisions that would keep the state’s elections free from external interference. In 2016, Russians hacked the Illinois elections website.
No need to codify emergency powers: It’s still unclear how much the Illinois legislature will take up this week when the House and Senate reconvene in Springfield, but Pritzker said it’s not necessary for lawmakers to pass a bill that would clarify a governor’s emergency powers. It comes as lawsuits have cropped up across the state challenging Pritzker’s authority to issue new stay-at-home executive orders. “There is so little time that the legislature is likely to be in session here that I think it’s going to have to be focused on the very basics like a budget,” Pritzker said.