CAPITOL RECAP: State begins Phase 4 of recovery from COVID-19 pandemic
By Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois on Friday, June 26, entered Phase 4 of the state’s Restore Illinois reopening plan.
In this phase, restaurants and bars may open for indoor dining at fractional capacity as long as they follow state guidelines, and gatherings up to 50 people are allowed. PreK-12 schools, higher education and all summer programs may also open with IDPH approved safety guidance, as could fitness clubs.
Restaurants must arrange their seating facilities so that tables are 6 feet apart, and parties larger than 10 people will not be allowed, per state guidelines. Standing areas such as bars will be allowed to operate at no more than 25 percent of capacity, and staff is required to wear face coverings when serving customers.
As well, gatherings of 50 people — up from 10 — will be allowed in Illinois, including at weddings and funerals; and fitness centers, movie theaters, museums and zoos will be allowed to reopen with capacity limits and health guidelines in place. Industry-specific guidelines from the state can be found at Illinois.gov/businessguidelines.
While each of the second, third and fourth phases of the plan lasted 30 days, there is no timetable for moving from Phase 4 to Phase 5, the final phase of the plan when the state’s economy fully reopens, including conventions, festivals and large events. Per the current plan, Phase 5 cannot begin without a coronavirus vaccine or “highly effective treatment” being widely available, or without new cases of the virus being eliminated for a sustained period.
Also during Phase 4, venues may host up to 50 people or 50 percent of their overall room capacity — whichever number is less. Multiple groups are permitted at certain facilities as long as there is space to social distance and limit interaction between groups.
Bowling alleys, skating rinks and clubhouses are on the list of allowable indoor and outdoor recreation under Phase 4, provided they also operate at the lesser of 50 customers or half capacity. Groups of 50 are allowed for outdoor recreation, and multiple groups can gather if they can remain separated.
Museums and zoos can reopen at 25 percent capacity or less, but interactive exhibits and rides must be closed. Guided tours are allowed but must be limited to 50 people or fewer per group. Indoor exhibits at zoos will remain closed as well.
Indoor-seated theaters and performing arts centers are allowed to open with 50 guests maximum or 50 percent capacity, whichever is less, in each of the theater’s screening rooms or performance spaces. Outdoor capacity is limited to 20 percent of overall theater or performance space capacity.
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JUDGE RULES ON PRITZKER ORDERS: All of Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive orders since April 8 pertaining to the novel coronavirus pandemic are void because he exceeded his authority when he used his emergency powers for more than 30 days, a Clay County judge ruled Thursday, July 2.
The Illinois Department of Public Health instead has “supreme authority” to close businesses and restrict residents’ activities in a public health crisis, Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney added.
His decision, which he expanded to apply to all Illinoisans, is the latest ruling in Xenia Republican Rep. Darren Bailey’s lawsuit. He argued in his April 23 filing that the governor could not issue successive disaster proclamations to manage COVID-19.
The attorney general’s office is likely to ask a higher court to reconsider the order. Thomas DeVore, Bailey’s attorney, said business occupancy limitations and other restrictions can no longer be enforced.
An official in the governor’s office, though, said the judge’s ruling is one “contradicted by multiple other” judges. She added “it is not a final judgement and has no injunction.” Phase 4 of the reopening plan is in effect, she said.
McHaney did not agree with all of the points Bailey alleged, however. He rejected the argument that COVID-19 did not satisfy the definition of a “disaster,” as outlined in the law Pritzker cited in his executive orders.
“One problem with the governor’s approach was that he acted as though he knew better how people should behave,” Bailey said in a statement. “Instead of presenting facts and calling on people to respond in a collaborative way, hard and fast rules were imposed.”
Bailey entered the court Thursday afternoon and walked out to applause from a group of supporters who, the representative said, came from across Illinois. Several were wearing grey shirts that said, “My governor is an idiot.”
The ruling in his lawsuit, he told reporters after the hearing, is beneficial for all Americans — governors’ COVID-19 responses should not be unilateral. Instead, he suggested, local departments of health should make determinations “county by county.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General Kwame Raoul said officials are “reviewing” McHaney’s order and “evaluating our options.”
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STATE’S FISCAL HEALTH: The state of Illinois, like most states, began a new fiscal year on July 1 and the person in charge of managing the state’s bank accounts said she fears it could be one of the most difficult years in modern memory.
“This is going to be, I think, by far perhaps the most challenging year that I’ve had to manage as comptroller,” state Comptroller Susana Mendoza said in an interview Wednesday, July 1. “And that’s saying something because, you know, I had to navigate the state through what was, when I took office, the worst fiscal crisis that our state had ever experienced, that two-year budget impasse.”
The difference between then and now, she said, was that during the budget impasse, the state still had revenues flowing in, just no legal authority to spend it. But in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the near shutdown of the state’s economy that it forced, Illinois now isn’t seeing anything close to the revenues it will need to fund the new budget.
The financial impact of the pandemic started to appear in state revenues in April and May. Before then, Mendoza noted, Illinois was in relatively good shape with a nominally balanced budget in place and revenues coming in greater than expected. The state was even making progress on paying down its backlog of past-due bills.
But that all changed in April after Gov. JB Pritzker extended the tax filing deadline to July 15, which took a big bite out of revenues the state normally would have seen that month. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate shot up to an unprecedented 17.2 percent in April as employers throughout Illinois were forced to shut down or scale back operations due to the novel coronavirus.
As of Wednesday, according to the comptroller’s website, the bill backlog stood at $5.4 billion. But Mendoza said that figure doesn’t tell the whole story because in order to keep the state running, it borrowed roughly $2.7 billion.
However, the plan for paying back that money, and any more the state may need to borrow this fiscal year, hinges on the idea that Congress will pass another economic relief package that will include significant relief for states — something it has not done yet and is still the subject of partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill.
Mendoza said there is no way for Illinois to make it through this new fiscal year without making draconian budget cuts if Congress doesn’t come through with that aid.
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COVID-19 HEALTH STATISTICS: COVID-19 hospitalizations rose above 1,651 for the first time in seven days at the end of Wednesday, July 1, increasing by 140 from the day before and by 187 from its June 27 low.
The number is also the highest single-day tally for hospital bed usage since June 19, when there were 1,699 people hospitalized with the virus.
The number of intensive care unit beds used by COVID-19 patients declined to 349 at the same time, however, decreasing by 35 from the day before and marking a new low since the state began reporting the figure daily on April 12. There were 195 ventilators in use by COVID-19 patients at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, an increase of six from the day prior and the second straight day the number saw an increase.
The Illinois Department of Public Health also announced 869 new confirmed cases of the virus among 30,262 tests completed in the previous 24 hours, making for a one-day positivity rate of 2.9 percent. The seven-day rolling positivity rate from June 26 to July 2 remained at 2.6 percent.
The seven-day period ending July 2 averaged 778 new cases announced per day, marking the second straight weeklong period in which the number of daily new cases has increased. From June 19-25, there were 665 new cases reported per day. From June 12-18, there were 596 new cases reported per day.
In total, the state has seen 144,882 confirmed cases of the virus since the pandemic first arrived in Illinois in March. There were another 36 COVID-19-related deaths reported Thursday, July 2, as well, bringing the total to 6,987 in the state. A total of 1.66 million tests have been completed in Illinois.
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GOP LEGAL CHALLENGE DENIED: A federal judge on Thursday, July 2, denied a request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed Illinois Republican Party groups to host large fundraising events.
In the lawsuit, the state GOP argued that Gov. JB Pritzker’s 50-person cap on gathering sizes — which was a 10-person cap when the lawsuit was filed — does not apply to religious organizations, and the governor “declined to enforce” his order against protesters demanding an end to systemic racism.
The GOP — along with the Will County Republican Central Committee, Schaumburg Township Republican Organization and Northwest Side GOP Club — argued that applying those exemptions to protestors and religious institutions but not to political parties created an “unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech,” according to a court document.
That, the Republicans claimed, was a violation of their First and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, which grant freedoms of speech and demonstration, as well as equal protections under the law.
U.S. District Court Judge Sara L. Ellis, of the Northern District of Illinois’ Eastern Division, denied the request for a temporary order that would allow the GOP to resume large gatherings, stating that granting the relief “would pose serious risks to public health.”
Illinois GOP Chairman Tim Schneider said lawyers were already working on an appeal.
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MITIGATION STUDY: There have been more than 1.66 million people tested for COVID-19 in Illinois, and the average number tested between June 24 and 30 was 29,065 daily.
According to a new study conducted by the Harvard Global Health Institute for NPR, that puts Illinois on an adequate path to mitigating the spread of the virus, but short of the amount of testing needed to suppress the spread of the virus. Suppression would require 68,211 tests per day, according to the study, and would help decrease the number of new cases further than the current leveling off.
Also according to NPR reporting, the main difference between mitigation and suppression “is that suppression calls for much more aggressive and consistent testing of high-risk individuals to allow communities to clamp down on emerging case clusters faster.”
Suppression would also require much wider contact tracing efforts, and testing could be targeted at high-risk places such as nursing homes, meat processing plants and other facilities requiring close quarters, according to the study.
That study also showed that Illinois was one of just 14 states on a mitigation path, while only three states – Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska – are doing enough testing to suppress the virus’ spread.
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RED-FLAG TREND?: According to a report at covidexitstrategy.org – a collaboration of public health and crisis experts – Illinois has moved from a “trending better” category as recently as June 24 into “trending poorly” based on several metrics, including measures laid out in the White House’s reopening plan.
The main drivers of the change in designation are that Illinois is seeing 60 new cases per million per day, and the state’s 14-day trend of new COVID-19 cases is on an increasing trajectory by 16 percent after there were fewer than 700 cases reported each day from June 10-23.
In the past seven days, the state has reported fewer than 700 cases only once, and has averaged 766 daily.
Illinois PIRG, a left-leaning nonprofit consumer advocacy group, issued a news release citing the report and calling on the state to “maintain all current restrictions related to COVID-19, and consider additional measures to improve containment.”
“Illinois has made great strides in containing the spread of COVID-19 because Gov. (JB) Pritzker and local leaders have listened to public health experts,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG director and a coordinator of Open Safe Illinois, a coalition of 25 health, labor, aging, and public interest organizations. “The ‘trending poorly’ ranking is a reminder that every stage of reopening brings increased risk, especially for essential workers, those in long-term care facilities and Black and Latinx communities, and that we must continue to act to control the spread of COVID-19.”
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EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT: Illinois’ top lawyer wants a U.S. court to compel a federal official to formally acknowledge the Equal Rights Amendment received enough state support to be added to the U.S. Constitution – a largely procedural step that has thus far blocked the amendment from ratification.
The case centers on a decision by U.S. National Archivist David Ferriero, who was effectively ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to deem passage of the Equal Rights Amendment – which would add protections for women as the 28th Amendment to the nation’s governing document – unsuccessful because multiple states missed a key congressional deadline.
Ferriero, who was appointed archivist by President Barack Obama in 2009, has since insisted that, unless a judge orders him to acknowledge the amendment’s passage, he will not do so.
When Congress introduced and passed the initiative in 1972, it set a seven-year deadline for state ratification, which was later extended to 1982. By then, only 35 states formally approved the language, five of which — South Dakota, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee — withdrew their backing in the 1970s.
In the last three years, Nevada, Illinois and Virginia became the last three states to approve the proposal.
In response to Ferriero’s insistence he would not officially certify the Equal Rights Amendment without a judge’s order, Illinois Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul, joined by his counterparts in Nevada and Virginia, filed a lawsuit in late January.
The archivist later asked a judge to dismiss the case. The attorneys general argued in a document filed Monday, June 29 that if that request is granted, the “careful balance our founders” established in the constitution between states and the federal government would be “upended.”
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CHICAGO CASINO: Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill into law Tuesday, June 30, that paves the way for development of a major casino in Chicago, something officials expect to provide significant revenues for the state’s recently-passed capital improvements plan known as Rebuild Illinois.
Lawmakers passed the bill during their special session in May. They initially approved a Chicago casino plan in the massive gaming expansion law enacted in 2019, but a subsequent study showed the taxes and fees included in that bill would have made such a casino financially infeasible.
The bill signed by Pritzker, Senate Bill 516, provides for a lower tax schedule that ranges from 22.5 to 77.4 percent of adjusted gross receipts from slot machines, and from 15 to 35 percent on table games. That revenue is split between the state and the city of Chicago, with the state getting the larger share of the cut.
In February, while the bill was being negotiated, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot estimated that a casino could produce around $1.2 billion in revenue, with the bulk of that going into the state’s coffers. That money is earmarked for so-called “vertical” construction projects such as hospitals and university campus improvements.
The city’s share of revenue is earmarked for police and firefighter pension obligations, and a small amount is set aside for Cook County for criminal justice enhancements.
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PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS: A new report from an Illinois think tank says the state was ill-prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily because of a pre-existing shortage of nurses, and that the pandemic has left state even more vulnerable in the event of another public health crisis.
The report, by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization with strong ties to organized labor, also argues the state would be in a better position if nurses at more hospitals were unionized and if the state adopted a law requiring mandatory minimum nurse staffing levels, an idea that was proposed in the 2019 legislative session but was not adopted.
But while the Illinois Health and Hospital Association agrees there is a nursing shortage, it argues the lack of preparedness was more of a federal problem, and that the nursing shortage did not diminish the quality of care patients received. It strongly opposes legislation requiring minimum nurse staffing levels at hospitals, and disputes any correlation between the quality of patient care and the presence of a nurses’ union in a hospital.
The report notes that even before the pandemic, Illinois had a shortage of about 20,000 nurses statewide and that the shortage will likely be exacerbated in the coming years because about half of the nurses practicing are older than 55.
Across all levels of care, it noted, nurses in unionized hospitals were able to spend more hours per day treating their patients. They also had lower turnover rates and lower vacancy rates for registered nurses.
But Danny Chun, spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, strongly disagreed that hospitals weren’t prepared for the pandemic.
“First of all, we’ve been drilling and doing exercises on pandemics before the pandemic hit,” Chun said during an interview. “Every hospital in the state, as you know, has an emergency preparedness plan for disasters of all kinds – mass shootings, traffic accidents, biochemical, biohazard, flu epidemics or pandemics. In the city of Chicago last year in the summer of 2019, Chicago hospitals did an exercise, a drill with the Chicago Department of Public Health on this exact issue – pandemics. And we were directly involved in a lot of the planning and discussions back in January, February, March where hospitals got ready for the pandemic.”
If there was any weakness in preparation, Chun said, it was with the federal government and its failure to maintain a national stockpile of personal protective equipment as well as open supply chains with China, where most PPE is manufactured.
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JUNIOR LIVESTOCK SHOWS: The state reported Monday, June 29, that the Illinois Department of Agriculture will host junior livestock and horse shows in place of the events that would have taken place at the canceled Illinois State Fairs.
The Junior Livestock Expo is scheduled to take place in Springfield for two consecutive weekends in September – the weekend of Sept. 11-13 for beef, sheep, dairy goats, pygmy goats and rabbits; and Sept. 18-20 for swine, dairy cattle and meat goats.
The Du Quoin State Fairgrounds will host a junior horse show on August 29-30 and Sept. 5-6.
“After the cancellations of the Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairs we knew there was a need to recognize our junior exhibitors who work year round preparing for the fairs,” Jerry Costello II, acting IDOA director, said in a statement. “We are excited to provide modified shows that will provide an opportunity for young adults to exhibit their animals safely following the Restore Illinois plan.”
Shows are limited to Illinois residents between the ages of 8 and 21.
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UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS: The number of Illinois workers receiving state unemployment benefits fell by more than 29,000 during the last week of June as many businesses resumed operations after 14 weeks under a stay-at-home order brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday, July 2, there were 676,338 people in Illinois receiving continuing unemployment benefits during the week that ended June 27. That was 29,511 fewer than the previous week.
First-time unemployment claims also fell to 45,249, a decrease of 1,027 from the previous week, but still a 463 percent increase over the same week a year ago when only 8,038 initial claims were filed.
In addition to those workers who qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, another 32,587 Illinoisans filed first-time claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, more than triple the number from the week before. PUA is a program funded entirely by the federal government under the CARES Act to extend benefits to independent contractors who aren’t normally covered under traditional state-funded unemployment.
The Department of Labor also reported figures for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program for the week that ended June 13, two weeks earlier than the other unemployment numbers. PEUC is another federally-funded program that extends benefits for up to 13 weeks for people who have exhausted their state-funded benefits. That was down 15 percent from the week before.
First-time PEUC claims during that week in mid-June totaled 32,604, a decrease of 14 percent from the prior week.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.