Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Rockford mayor, governor get real about reopening Illinois

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD – Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker continue to address cries to reopen nonessential businesses as the state trudges through the outbreak of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

McNamara’s position on getting the Illinois economy back online came in a letter penned to Pritzker, expressing his concern that while big box stores have flourished during the shutdown, local merchants are in grave shape.

“At the same time,” the mayor writes, “financial relief for local businesses such as Small Business Association loans and unemployment benefits have been drastically reduced, and are mired in red tape, or otherwise unavailable or insufficient to keep small businesses and their employees afloat. Big box stores are recording record profits, while the ‘mom and pop’ stores are sadly going insolvent.”

McNamara is not asking the governor to simply the lift the stay-at-home order, however. He said Monday he is against reopening everything when the order expires April 30. He’s also not a big fan of a fragmented approach, where different municipalities have different sets of rules.

What McNamara does want is for small businesses to be treated fairly and to open with social-distancing conditions like their well-capitalized, corporate counterparts.

Under the mayor’s proposal, nonessential retailers would be permitted to offer curbside service and take phone orders as part of their minimum basic operations. Following guidelines of the Winnebago County Health Department, workers would wear face coverings, practice social distancing, have their temperatures checked at least twice during their shifts, and keep transactions contact free. Customers would remain in their vehicles.

“By allowing big box stores to keep their nonessential departments open for business, while requiring standalone stores to close, we are encouraging more people to congregate at a select few stores,” McNamara said. “Implementing the minor changes set forth above will ensure that public health remains a top priority, while beginning the process of reopening small business safely for employees and customers.”

McNamara said if Pritzker decides against his proposal, the governor should make a bold move to level the playing field.

“Should you feel that public health concerns are too great at this time to enact these changes for small businesses, we request that you close non-essential departments at big box stores including clothing sections, shoe departments, gardening centers, etc.,” the mayor said. “We urge you to act on these recommendations to help save our local businesses, which are the backbone of every community in Illinois.”

McNamara is not the only mayor calling on the state to loosen its grip on local commerce. Last week, Loves Park Mayor Greg Jury; Machesney Park Mayor Steve Johnson; Durand President Robert Corwin; South Beloit Mayor Ted Rehl; and Cherry Valley President Jim Claeyssen wrote Pritzker, saying it’s time for a restart in their towns, too.

Their message is different than McNamara’s though. They say because Winnebago County is not the dense population center like Cook, where the lion’s share of the state’s COVID-19 is concentrated, it should not be treated like a hotspot.

The sentiment of the five mayors has also been voiced by others in rural counties that haven’t been hit hard by the virus. Some say they feel like they are being punished for the situation in Chicago even though they are many miles from the Windy City.

Pritzker said there is nothing punitive about the statewide order. He said he issued it at a time of uncertainty, out of concern about how rapidly COVID-19 was spreading.

“When this broke out, nobody knew how fast this would travel,” Pritzker said. “Nobody knew who was most susceptible to it, nobody knew how to counter its effects. And much of that information, although we’ve discovered some, is still unknown to experts. In all due caution to protect all the people in the state of Illinois, we put orders in place that would keep people healthy and safe and hopefully prevent people from getting COVID-19 who otherwise might.”

Pritzker said a regional or county-by-county reopening is possible. He’s going to be cautious though, because he is worried that lifting guidelines too soon will cause spikes in some rural parts of the state, where cases of COVID-19 have doubled.

“It’s correct to say that in more rural areas, there have been fewer cases,” he said. “The interesting thing to look at is the number of days the doubling time is for counties. You can find them online. You can find different areas of the state that even though they have smaller populations, (they) have a higher doubling time than very urban areas of the state. There’s no punishment involved. The goal here is to do the right thing for everybody. And it’s true that in some areas of the state there are lower infection rates and a lower doubling time, and that needs to be taken into consideration to make changes.”

The governor said he has been consulting with industry leaders, medical experts and scientists on how to modify the stay-at-home order so some businesses can potentially open before others. He also said models he is following show Illinois will see a peak in new COVID-19 cases as late as mid-May, significantly later than other predictions that estimated the state would reach a peak around April 15.

The governor is expected to announce an extension of the stay-at-home order in the next few days.


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