By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara on Monday announced that he is assembling working groups to help him wade through the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
McNamara said the 10 groups of local experts and thought leaders will be tasked largely with advising city officials on how to restart the local economy once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“(They) will advise our city staff and City Council, and make our hopes of a quick recovery into a reality,” McNamara said.
The groups will also develop ideas and make recommendations to the community.
“I am asking these groups to work within the City of Rockford’s guided principles adopted by City Council in October 2017, and my often-stated priorities of keeping the public safe, strengthening our neighborhoods, and growing our economy,” the mayor said.
The working group categories will be infrastructure, social services, industry, arts and culture, health care, small business, tourism and hospitality, education and workforce development, government efficiency, and the City of Rockford’s finances.
“I have high expectations for these working groups,” the mayor said. “I expect these groups to develop and share their information in real time, as opposed to waiting to the end of a group’s meetings and share one big report. I expect these groups to ask tough questions, think outside the normal boundaries, challenge the conventional wisdom and think exponentially of how future generations will be better off by the actions we take together now.”
The mayor also addressed a cry for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to allow businesses in municipalities less affected by COVID-19 to open back up May 1 as part of a geographic approach to get the state online.
McNamara said he has reached out to the governor and is as eager as anyone to see local merchants back in businesses. But now is not the time, he said, to disrupt what has helped slow the spread of coronavirus.
“Protecting the health of our residents must remain out top priority,” he said. “Now is absolutely the time to follow science and medicine,” he said. “We what we have been doing as a community is working. Some have said, ‘We have so few cases. We should just open up everything immediately.’ Nothing would make us happier if everything was back to normal.”
Even though some national models show that Illinois is close a peak in new COVID cases, McNamara said the picture looks different locally.
“We need to understand two important items,” he said. “No. 1, our peak in Winnebago County is projected to hit between April 29 and May 6. No. 2, fewer than 1% of our entire population of Winnebago County has been tested. Now is not the time to reverse our course. A plan to open all businesses on a single day or allow a fragmented system for each city with its own rules is not responsible when we know it will be right smack-dab in the middle of that peak.”
Under Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, non-essential businesses are closed and restaurants are reduced to carryout and curbside services through April 30. As a result, more than 630,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits and some small businesses have closed for good.
The sting has undoubtedly been felt locally, especially in the retail and service sectors. Once brightly lit, locally-owned storefronts are dark, parking lots empty and streets nearly bare as Rockfordians shelter in place.
Pritzker said last week that a regional or county-by-county approach to get Illinois back to work is something he is considering. But he remains fearful that lifting restrictions in rural areas too soon will overwhelm small hospitals if COVID-19 spikes occur as a result. The governor is expected to announce a modified extension of the stay-at-home order before April 30.
As of Monday, 209 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Winnebago County and 11 people have died from complications of the disease. And although the number of cases in the county is not nearly as high as leaders feared a month ago, the mayor said the decision to reopen should only be made when the experts say the time is right.
“There is an extremely delicate balance between an ongoing public health crisis and a need to reopen our business community,” he said. “However, we do know that when our public health and medical experts are confident that it’s the right time, we will get back to work. And our recovery must get off fast and must be off to a strong start.”