Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Thursday laid out his most sweeping plans to date to try to tame the state’s worsening coronavirus crisis, ordering a halt to gatherings of more than 1,000 people, encouraging companies to let their employees work from home and restricting public access to the James R. Thompson Center.
And Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appeared alongside Pritzker and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, said the city’s public schools and mass transit system would remain open for now despite more new cases of COVID-19.
At a sober late afternoon briefing, state public health officials announced seven new cases in the Chicago area, bringing the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Illinois to 32. One of the latest diagnoses is a child.
“I wish I could tell you that going about your everyday lives with no adjustments was the best course of action right now. It is not. And I owe you honesty,” the governor said.
Pritzker, who recommended the postponement of all events involving 250 or more people, also cancelled all major sporting events in Chicago until at least May 1 and made clear there are no plans to delay next Tuesday’s primary elections.
The governor’s move regarding the Thompson Center would permit public access only to people with official state business, including the renewal of state driver’s licenses.
Meanwhile, Lightfoot said Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Transit Authority remain open for now, but she did not rule out potential action later if conditions dictate closures on a limited basis or systemwide.
“The schools and CTA are something we think about every single day, and it may evolve,” she said. “But right now, we don’t see any reason or rationale to shut down public transit in the city of Chicago.”
Lightfoot also reminded Chicagoans to avoid coming to work if they display any of the symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever and coughing and, in the coming days and weeks, to make it a point to check in on the elderly or anyone else who is otherwise vulnerable to the virus.
“We have to continue practicing social-distancing, and If you don’t feel well, for God’s sake, stay home. All individuals regardless of socioeconomic or immigration status should seek treatment without fear,” she said.
“We need to make sure that we are being good neighbors. We need to make sure that we are looking out for each other, particularly people that we know on our block, in our neighborhood, in our network ,who are vulnerable and who maybe need an additional hand. Please make sure we are watching out for each other. Take care of yourselves, have a family plan and make sure you are checking in on your neighbors,” she said.
The governor’s moves to safeguard Tuesday’s elections also included a call to local election jurisdictions to expand in-person early-voting hours this weekend to enable people to avoid large crowds on Tuesday. Additionally, Lightfoot announced on her Twitter account that a deadline for applying for mail-in voting online was extended from a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to midnight.
Separately, campaigns were beginning to alter how they reached Illinois voters.
A memo circulated by Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign said campaign staffers would be working from home and that voter outreach would be limited to phone-banking, texting and “virtual” events like a video town hall Biden has set for Illinois supporters on Friday.
The more traditional style of campaigning by going door to door to solicit voter support -- dubbed parochially as a “precinct captain” kind of campaign -- appeared to no longer be in the Biden campaign playbook in Illinois because of worries over COVID-19.
Biden’s rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, took similar steps Thursday, vowing an end to door-to-door canvassing.
Pritzker’s push to limit sporting events goes further than an announcement by Major League Baseball that postponed opening days at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field for at least two weeks. The Cubs’ home opener had been scheduled for March 30, while the White Sox’ first home game had been scheduled for March 26.
Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for the Ricketts family that owns the Cubs, said the team intends to “support the governor’s position.”
“It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the news coming at you right now. But the people of this state are an audacious and fearless bunch,” Pritzker said. “Our public institutions are among the best in the country. We have the knowledge, the resources and the talented people to deal with each new challenge that comes our way.”
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter at @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.