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J.B. Pritzker: Prolonged pandemic restrictions not about federal bailouts

By Jim Hagerty

CHICAGO – Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker reiterated Wednesday that his gradual, five-phase plan to re-open the economy is driven by science and data, and chose not to discuss political boons that could potentially stem from the COVID-19 crisis.

When asked about what he would say to those who believe Democratic governors are trying to keep their states closed for as long as possible to make a better case for federal bailouts, Pritzker said he could only speak for himself but hasn’t gotten such an impression.

“And I’ve certainly talked to a number of other (governors),” Pritzker said. “We are listening to the scientists, the epidemiologists (and) the doctors about what’s best for the people who live in our states. That’s what we’re doing–all of us.”

Pritzker said governors are not only discussing epidemiological findings, they are sharing those findings as well as their experts.

But it’s not like Illinois doesn’t need an economic boost. Whether they’re called a bailout or plain old subsidies, aid for citizens, thousands of small businesses on life support, and revenue-starved municipalities must come from Washington. Pritzker has acknowledged that reality in recent press briefings, but hasn’t touched much on the state’s biggest problem, one most worthy of a traditional bailout, and that’s the public pension hole that’s been widening for several years.

Though true that coronavirus has caused economic hardship in every state, it’s been like a neutron bomb for the balanced budget Pritzker presented to lawmakers in February. It, therefore, comes with little shock that Illinois Democrats called on Capitol Hill for $10 billion in cash and a loan for its pension fund until fiscal year 2022.

Republicans, namely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), have spurned the idea of bailing out fiscally strained states, suggesting they be permitted to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, something Pritzker said he wouldn’t consider even if the code were changed.

Meanwhile, the governor says his focus is on “Restore Illinois,” his roadmap to move on from coronavirus with as few small-business casualties and additional human ones as possible. Pritzker says he’s relied on data compiled by some of the nation’s top scientists and doctors to draft the plan and is confident he can make that happen.

State Republicans aren’t as assured. Two have already sued over the statewide stay-at-home executive order, and a handful of others chided the re-opening plan before its ink was dry.

“The science can’t definitively tell us when it’s safe to move from one step to another step,” Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) told News 3 WSIL. “There’s a lot of complexity that comes into establishing these multi-faceted plans. And when we have that level of complexity, we need to have input from a wide variety of stakeholders to try to make the best decisions possible.”

Demmer said Republicans can’t accept Pritzker’s plan as-is because it could “destroy most of the businesses in the state.”

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) said many of those businesses are bars and restaurants, which employ about 10% of the state’s workforce. And allowing them to wait as long as two months to open could force many into bankruptcy.

“Since this past March, 321,000 of those employees in those restaurants and bar-restaurants have been laid off or furloughed,” Durkin said.

Under the Restore Illinois Plan, bars and restaurants would open in Phase 4, around July 1.

Durkin is also advocating for the legislature to have input in how the state moves forward, saying Pritzker’s plan allows him to run the state by executive order for several more months or longer.

“I took an oath of office to faithfully discharge my duties in the coequal branch of government called the legislature,” During said. “I did not abdicate not relinquish my elected responsibilities to the Executive Branch.”

Pritzker has stated a number of times over the past several weeks that he’s not running the state by executive order. He’s noted that lawmakers are essential workers, with the ability to meet but have chosen not to convene.

Under the Restore Illinois, the state is currently in Phase 2, “Flattening.” Regions with positive COVID-19 trends may move into Phase 3, “Recovery,” beginning May 29.

Phase 3 would also last 28 days, and allow offices, salons, barbershops, factories and gyms back online with restrictions. Masks and social-distancing would still be the norm and outdoor gatherings would be limited to 10 people.

As of Wednesday, there are 68,232 cases of COVID-19 in Illinois, a running total that includes those who’ve already recovered. It also includes presumptive positives. There have been 2,974 COVID-19-related fatalities.

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