With Illinois several weeks from its COVID-19 apex, Gov. JB Pritzker repeatedly signaled Tuesday that he does not plan to permit an early-May reopening of businesses across the state.
Doing so, the Democratic governor said, could undo the curve-flattening effects he attributes to his stay-at-home order that has shut down wide swaths of the state’s economy for more than four weeks.
“It’s true it is working,” Pritzker said during his Tuesday COVID-19 briefing, referring to his stay-at-home edict that first took effect March 21 and expires on April 30. “To remove it entirely is to simply open everything back up to infection.”
The governor vowed not to take Illinois down the same path as a trio of southern states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Against the advice of public-health experts, they plan to reopen department stores, gyms, nail salons, barber shops and other businesses on May 1, even though the states’ COVID-19 caseloads and death tolls continue to rise.
“If they’re all doing the same thing, which is essentially opening everything up, yes, I have ruled that out for the time being. Because as I’ve said time and time again, for us to truly open things up we need tracing. We need testing. And we need a treatment available, and we need a widespread availability of [personal protective equipment],” the governor said. “We don’t have those things available to us today.”
Pritzker said he’s also giving weight to federal guidance that recommends 14 consecutive days of declining cases and deaths.
The governor’s comments came as new cases and deaths continued to vault higher in Illinois. Pritzker’s administration disclosed 119 new COVID-19 fatalities, bringing the total death toll to 1,468. Additionally, 1,551 new positive cases were confirmed in the past 24 hours, bringing the state’s overall total to 33,059.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, the governor told the Washington Post that the state’s internal modeling is showing that Illinois won’t reach its peak caseload until mid-May, a timeline that’s about a month later than some earlier estimates.
That delay should bring with it fewer deaths than previously expected because of the effects of the stay-at-home order, the governor said.
“We were the second state in the United States to put forward our stay-at-home rule, and people really have been abiding by it for the most part,” he said. “And so the result of that has been the pushing out of what had been anticipated to be a peaking in the middle or near the end of April.
“It’s been pushed out now, according to the models, to maybe mid-May but at a lower level,” Pritzker said, adding that “we’ve had many fewer deaths than had been anticipated.”
But when asked about the change in the modeling, and what specifically his administration is basing those projections on, Pritzker declined to answer Tuesday, saying he’d provide more details later this week.
And, Illinois may not be out of the woods, regardless of when Pritzker eases his stay-at-home order.
State Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike warned Tuesday of a possible second wave of COVID-19 that could strike Illinois this fall.
“I think we should be concerned, obviously,” she said. “We’re following information and data that’s coming from all around the world. We know that the fall already is traditionally an established time for flu outbreaks. The flu is our epidemic that we see on a scheduled basis.
“So if there was supposed to be any resurgence, we could see why that would be at that time. So if you had COVID as well as flu, it’s very concerning that could be a significant second wave or a second surge,” Ezike said. “So that’s why without a treatment, without a vaccine for COVID, those two overlaid could be very problematic.”
In other developments on the COVID-19 front in Illinois:
Underutilized McCormick Place? Illinois is three days from its earlier goal of completing a 3,000-bed buildout of McCormick Place as a field hospital to serve less seriously-ill COVID-19 patients. But Pritzker acknowledged the state ultimately may not need that extra capacity and is “making a few adjustments” to the facility’s design plans. Since it opened April 3, his administration said fewer than a dozen patients have been sent there for treatment by Chicago-area hospitals. “The consequence of being under-prepared would be the loss of life. And the consequence of being over-prepared would be that we built out more than we may have needed. And nobody can know exactly where we’ll end up [until] much after we’ve hit the peak and moved off of it,” he said.
Student loan relief: Those with privately-held student loans in Illinois could see some pandemic-driven financial relief under a multi-state agreement with 20 lenders. The federal CARES Act, one of several pandemic-relief steps enacted by President Trump and Congress, allowed for the suspension of monthly payments and penalties for those holding federal student loans. Roughly 140,000 borrowers in Illinois with privately-managed student loans would see similar relief under the deal Illinois and eight other states brokered with more than a dozen private lenders. “These are people just as affected by the turmoil of this pandemic as their counterparts covered by the CARES Act,” Pritzker said. Those struggling to make payments on their private student loans due to the pandemic are eligible for up to 90 days of forbearance and waivers of late-payment fees. Lenders also have agreed to stop initiating debt-collection lawsuits and making negative credit reports for three months. Those seeking information can contact the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation at 217-785-2900.
Governing by executive order: In light of the 26 executive orders Pritzker has signed since March 13, 2020 — all in response to the coronavirus pandemic — Pritzker was asked about his comfort level in governing without checks on those orders by either legislators or judges. “I don’t feel comfortable at all,” Pritzker said. “As soon as we can get on the other side of this challenge — listen, I want regular order. There are so many things that you’ve heard me talk about, the things that I want to accomplish for the people of the state of Illinois, and those can’t be accomplished in the context of a pandemic.”
SNAP expansion: Pritzker also announced an additional $112 million in funding to help those who rely on food stamps and also take care of school-aged children. The extra funding — channeled through the state Department of Human Services — will help distribute food to more than 300,000 people statewide.