SPRINGFIELD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday, July 14, gave only vague answers to reporters’ questions about potential future restrictions Illinois might put in place to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in certain areas.
Pritzker was asked if a recent rise in cases and positivity rate would lead him to once again close Illinois restaurants to indoor dining.
“We're watching these numbers very, very closely. …I don't wake up on any day, and not look at those numbers first thing,” he said. “We've been very measured about how we've reopened our state. And there are many people that complain that where we are now isn't open enough. And so I would just say that there — I will not hesitate to reimpose some mitigations, if we see our numbers moving upward.”
When asked if there were any defined metrics that the state or a region might meet to warrant a step backward in any areas of reopening, Pritzker said only “sustained upward movement of numbers” could drive that process.
“I listen to our Department of Public Health director as well as to the many epidemiologists who are advising us and watching very closely the states in the South and the West that are struggling right now, and wondering where could we or should we … turn the dimmer switch, as they say, on some of these items,” he said. “And the answer is that, you know, if we see a sustained upward movement of numbers. That's something that is an alert for all of us in the governor's office and in our administration to begin to look at the mitigations we need to put in place.”
Pritzker did say in the early days of the pandemic there was not enough data on indoor dining and its capacity to drive widespread transmission of the virus. While he said “the data is now in,” he did not indicate there were any immediate plans of action regarding indoor dining.
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MITIGATION PLAYBOOK: Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday, July 15, laid out a new virus mitigation framework dividing the state into 11 regions for purposes of slowing the coronavirus’ spread.
That’s an increase from the four broad regions in the Restore Illinois reopening plan in place before Wednesday’s announcements.
The new regions largely follow the state’s emergency medical regions, including five split between Chicago and its suburbs, one in the St. Louis Metro East area, one Southern Illinois region, a Northern Illinois non-Chicago or suburban region, and each an East-Central, West-Central and North-Central region.
Pritzker, at a COVID-19-specific news conference in Chicago, also laid out the metrics that, if hit by any of the regions, would cause the state to implement new restrictions to mitigate spread. No regions were currently hitting any of the metrics as of Wednesday.
Those metrics include a combination of: an increase in the seven-day rolling average for test positivity rate for seven out of 10 days; a sustained seven-day increase in hospital admissions for a COVID-19- like illness; or a reduction in hospital capacity of intensive care unit beds to under 20 percent available.
Pritzker said there would be a “menu of options” to contain the virus, including many of those in place during previous phases of the reopening plan. Bars were of particular concern, he said, along with youth sports camps that have proven to be hotbeds for the virus.
A “failsafe” requiring immediate action, as Pritzker described it, would occur if a region has three consecutive days averaging greater than an 8 percent positivity rate on tests conducted.
The Illinois Department of Public Health announced three tiers of mitigation strategies that could be employed if a region reaches those metrics.
In “higher risk” settings, such as indoor bars and restaurants, some mitigations could be triggered “automatically.” These include reduced indoor dining capacity and suspended indoor bar service in tier one, followed by suspended indoor dining in tier two, then takeout only in tier three.
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COVID-19 HEALTH STATISTICS: On Thursday, July 16, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced 1,257 new confirmed cases and 25 COVID-19-related deaths.
For now, virus positivity rates and hospitalizations for COVID-19 appear to have leveled near their pandemic lows.
There were 43,006 tests results reported in the previous 24 hours — a state high for a one-day period — which made for a one-day positivity rate of 2.9 percent and kept the seven-day rolling positivity rate at 3.1 percent.
As of Wednesday night, statewide hospitalization metrics remained near their pandemic lows. There were 1,434 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Of those, 311 patients were in intensive care units and 127 were on ventilators. Those all represented decreases from the day prior.
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UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS: Illinois saw 37,626 new unemployment claims for the week ending July 11, a decrease of more than 1,000 from the previous week as continued claims numbered 663,399.
That represented a 0.7 percentage point decrease to the state unemployment rate, which was 14.6 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. U.S. Department of Labor data shows there were 4,061 fewer continued claims for the week ending July 12 than there were the previous week.
Nonfarm payrolls added 142,800 jobs in June based on preliminary data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In a news release, state officials expressed optimism that the positive employment trends could continue and accelerate as the state tries to navigate a path toward virus mitigation and economic growth.
According to IDES, the state’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percentage points higher than the national unemployment rate reported for June, which was 11.1 percent, down 2.2 percentage points from the previous month. The Illinois unemployment rate was up 10.6 percentage points from a year ago when it was 4 percent.
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REOPENING SCHOOLS: On the reopening of schools, Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday, July 15, said all districts and buildings are different, so “one size doesn't fit all.” There’s room for adaptation of the Illinois State Board of Education guidelines, as long as face covering, social distancing and classroom size guidelines are met.
“In every decision relating to this viral threat, schools must focus on giving our children the best education possible, while offering the greatest consideration to their health and the health of their families, and all of those who work in our schools,” he said. “And as indicated by the ISBE instructions, hybrid schedules and remote learning are likely to be a part of that solution.”
At a Thursday, July 16, news conference in Rockford, the governor also took questions on the immediate future of K-12 education for the fall term in Illinois. He reiterated that masks and social distancing are required in any district, otherwise individual districts and schools will have leeway for developing plans.
He also warned, “This fall is not going to be like any other fall from a school perspective that we've seen.”
“We've left it up to school districts to make these decisions because every one of them is different, their capability to do that is different,” he said of the potential of opening schools early and having classes outside. “What we want to make sure is that there are options here. So we put a lot of money this summer and, frankly, even in the spring to building up our E-learning resources. …It's not nearly as good as in-person. …I think the experts have determined that. But having options is hugely important, particularly in this very uncertain world of a novel coronavirus.”
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EZIKE URGES: Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of IDPH, and Gov. JB Pritzker both said on Wednesday, July 15, that the best virus mitigation tactic is wearing a face covering in public, keeping distance from others and hand washing. Ezike added young people are now a major driver of the virus’ spread.
“Ages 10-to-19 and ages 20-to-29 — they are having higher case rates now than ever before in this pandemic,” she said. “We are following this very closely, but young people and parents of young people, please be aware. This virus is now being spread by youth, by younger people. So young people, we need you to make responsible decisions to help us continue to keep our successes and decrease and minimize spread.”
Ezike said those exposed to a person testing positive for the virus must “undergo a 14-day timeout” of self-quarantine. It’s best to wait six to seven days after exposure to get tested, she said, otherwise a false negative may occur. Even a negative test does not release a person from the 14-day quarantine requirement, she said.
“I know that's hard to take — You're feeling fine. You got an initial test, it says you're negative. But that test is not enough to take you out of the 14-day timeout. We have many individuals that have not been positive on day six or seven,” she said, adding that positive test results have come as late as 14 days after exposure.
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U.S. CENSUS: Gov. JB Pritzker encouraged Illinoisans to complete the 2020 U.S. Census and touted a state investment in youth employment programs Thursday, July 16, during two public appearances in Rockford.
The state has a 66.9 percent census self-response rate currently. That’s nearly 5 percentage points better than the 62.1 percent national rate, but well below the state’s 2010 final self-reporting tally of 70.5 percent. In 2000, the self-response rate in Illinois was 69 percent.
Pritzker’s message at the Rockford City Market was that filling out the census is “an act of civic engagement” that has a direct effect on the amount of federal funding the state receives. In turn, an undercount often disproportionately impacts the neediest communities in the state, which typically have lower response rates.
“The same ZIP codes that are impacted the worst by COVID-19 — those that have been hurting for generations — are on track to be the most undercounted at a time when frankly we need full funding,” he said.
A 1 percent undercount for the state could result in it losing $195 million per year in federal funding for the next decade, Pritzker said. That equates to about $1,500 per year in federal funding lost for each person not counted in the census.
Based upon the 2010 count, the state collects $34 billion in federal funds annually, the governor added.
This year’s numbers have Illinois tied with Virginia for seventh among all states. The response portal will be open until Oct. 31 due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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BAILEY LAWSUIT: A hearing in downstate Rep. Darren Bailey’s lawsuit challenging the governor’s authority to issue consecutive executive orders will not be held Friday, July 17, as scheduled.
Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney’s July 2 ruling in the Xenia Republican’s case failed to address one issue — whether the COVID-19 pandemic met the definition of a disaster in Gov. JB Pritzker’s April 30 state of emergency.
Thoms DeVore, Bailey’s attorney, requested the judge rule on that question without a trial. McHaney declined, and now will await DeVore’s written response to the state’s call for the matter to be dismissed.
In a court document filed July 7, the attorney general’s office, which is representing Pritzker, called this last active issue “moot” because any ruling “would not have a practical effect.”
The points raised in DeVore’s arguments that COVID-19 was not a disaster as specified in the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act were “incorporated” into the two complaints Bailey won, the office added.
McHaney nullified all of the governor’s executive orders related to COVID-19 made after April 8. He also decided that the Illinois Department of Public Health has the “supreme authority” to close businesses and restrict residents’ activities in a public health crisis.
Pritzker’s office, Bailey and legal experts disagree on the scope of that order — some assert it affects only Clay County while others maintain it applies statewide.
Bailey, in an interview with Capitol News Illinois on Thursday, July 16, said the court set a deadline of July 22 for DeVore to file a response to the state’s request.
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LEGAL CHALLENGES COMBINING?: The Chicago-based legal aid foundation representing the Illinois Republican Party and Right to Life advocacy group asked a federal court Wednesday, July 16, for permission to combine the two cases.
Consolidation is logical, Liberty Justice Center Attorney Daniel Suhr wrote in a filing, because “the legal issues are nearly identical” in both cases.
The Republican Party and Illinois Right to Life organization filed separate lawsuits on June 15 and June 23, respectively, claiming Gov. JB Pritzker’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people is unconstitutional.
That restriction, implemented to combat the COVID-19 spread in the state, included an exception for houses of worship and seemingly did not apply to Black Lives Matter protests, Suhr argued in both cases. Under the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, restrictions should apply to all groups uniformly or not at all.
U.S. District Court judges in both lawsuits denied the GOP’s and anti-abortion organization’s request for an order temporarily suspending enforcement of Pritzker’s cap on gathering attendance.
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DATA BREACH SUIT DROPPED: A St. Clair County resident dropped her federal lawsuit against the firm contracted to launch an unemployment claims portal she said was solely responsible for a data breach that made available the personal information of nearly 33,000 Illinoisans.
The web-based system built and maintained by Deloitte Consulting LLP to process some Illinois unemployment claims allowed public access of applicants’ names, Social Security numbers and street addresses, the Illinois Department of Employment Security announced on May 18. The information was only accessed by one person, according to the state.
According to the lawsuit filed by Briana Julius on June 8, at least three other states — Ohio, Colorado and Arkansas — also contracted Deloitte to construct similar portals. Within five days of notice that Illinois’ system was compromised, both Colorado and Ohio made announcements their portals had the same flaw.
She was suing on behalf of herself and all other Americans who might have been harmed, and she asked a judge to allow a jury trial.
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SOCIAL EQUITY GRANTS: The application deadline is approaching for one of the key programs driving the state’s equity-centric approach to marijuana legalization, and the state is looking to hire hundreds from disadvantaged communities to review those applications.
The R3 – Restore, Reinvest and Renew – Program has $31.5 million in grants available for organizations in communities disproportionately impacted by poverty, gun violence or the war on drugs, and the deadline to apply is Monday, July 20.
During a livestreamed town hall event Tuesday, July 14, Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton said the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, or ICJIA, is looking to hire up to 300 residents from R3-eligible areas to help review grant proposals.
“This process has been rooted in equity every step of the way. We didn’t want the reviewers to be from somewhere else, somebody who doesn’t have a connection to the community,” Stratton said. “We want the reviewers to come directly from the community.”
R3-eligible areas are determined by two sets of criteria. The first includes rates of gun injuries, child poverty, unemployment and incarceration; and the second set requires a Disproportionately Impacted Area designation by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. There are 683 census tracts designated as Disproportionately Impacted Areas in Illinois based on high rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration related to marijuana, among other factors.
An interactive map of eligible areas is available on the R3 website at https://r3.illinois.gov/eligibility.
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GRADUATED TAX: A group pushing for approval of the graduated tax constitutional amendment on Nov. 3 used tax day to further its cause Wednesday, July 15, the second of a two-day push promoting an overhaul of Illinois’ current income tax system.
In Rockford, Peoria and the Metro East on Tuesday, July 14, and in Chicago, its suburbs and Springfield on Wednesday, graduated tax proponents organized by the Vote Yes for Fair Tax ballot initiative committee made their case for a change to the state’s constitutionally-enshrined flat tax to one that allows the state to charge different rates on different levels of income.
The speakers in favor of the change included religious leaders, seniors, teachers, small business owners, firefighters and others. The coalition was backed by community and advocacy groups, labor organizations and faith groups.
“It's completely unfair that educators, like myself, pay the same income tax rate as millionaires and billionaires,” Rebecca Gamboa, a teacher at Madison Elementary School in Lombard, said in a virtual news conference. “I love what I do. And I'm proud of my job, but I think it's only fair for the wealthy to pay just a little bit more so the rest of us can get a break.”
She said the $3 billion annually expected to result from the graduated tax when it is implemented for a full year could be beneficial to schools, which are already underfunded due to ongoing state fiscal pressures.
The ballot measure will require 60 percent of those voting on the question in the November general election or a majority of those voting in the election to approve it for it to become law. If it passes, a rate structure already been approved by lawmakers would become law in January.
Per that structure, persons or couples earning less than $250,000 would see their tax rates remain the same or be lowered from the current flat tax rate of 4.95 percent for all earners. Those earning more than that would see increases depending on their level of income. Those earning more than $1 million would see a flat tax rate of 7.99 percent on all income.
That amounts to 97 percent of taxpayers seeing rate cuts while 3 percent see higher rates, supporters argue.
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ETHICS REFORM: With fewer than four months remaining until the general election, House Republicans said Tuesday, July 14, they want to remind Illinoisans of Democratic lawmakers’ “failure” to address corruption in the General Assembly.
It has been 260 days since former Chicago Democratic Rep. Louis Arroyo was charged by federal officials with bribery, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said during a virtual news conference. Arroyo’s case remains pending.
Durkin, of Western Springs, also mentioned the case of former Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who pleaded guilty in January to federal charges of bribery and tax fraud.
Democratic representatives “appeared sickened and dismayed” by those ethics violations before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, Durkin said, but “cannot be found nor heard from today.”
“New leadership” in the Illinois House — specifically, installing Durkin as speaker — would end the “cycle of corruption,” Rep. Mark Batinick, a Republican from Plainfield, said Tuesday.
When the Legislature met for a special session in May, guidelines established that only issues “narrowly confined” to COVID-19 could be considered, Durkin said. Instead of addressing reforms previously proposed, the Democratic majority focused on “spending taxpayer money we don’t have, increasing income tax hikes (and) failing to fix the unfair property tax system.
“I’m here to say myself and my caucus will not let anyone forget about the crisis of confidence and corruption that persists in Springfield under the Democratic majority control,” Durkin said.
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MARIJUANA SALES REVENUE: Since January, Illinois residents and visitors have spent nearly $240 million on legalized recreational marijuana, producing $52 million in state revenue, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
Of that, $34.7 million came from excise taxes, while $18 million came from sales taxes.
Per the law, 8 percent of that revenue will be shared with local governments, while the Illinois Department of Revenue estimates $25.9 million from excise and sales taxes will be directed to the state’s General Revenue Fund.
Also under the law, 25 percent of revenues collected from recreational cannabis sales will be reinvested through the R3 program (Restore, Reinvest and Renew) in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the justice system, and to address substance abuse and prevention and mental health concerns.
The R3 program on Tuesday, July 14, announced $31.5 million in grant opportunities to organizations working in historically underserved communities across Illinois.
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EDUCATION FUNDING: The governor’s office on Tuesday, July 14, announced the state will dedicate $108.5 million in federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, funds to pre K-12 public schools and higher education institutions “to meet the unique challenges of COVID-19.”
The funding includes $10 million to support early childhood programs, including professional development to address the social-emotional needs of children. It also provides “flexible funding” to support home learning materials, personal protective equipment, technology or additional staffing for Preschool for All and Prevention Initiative programs in areas most impacted by COVID-19.
Another $50 million will go to K-12 schools in an effort to close the “digital divide,” train educators and parents and provide social-emotional supports for students, according to the governor’s office.
Of that, $32.5 million will go to certain districts to purchase devices such as laptops and tablets, and $7.5 million will help purchase WiFi hotspots and increase internet connectivity.
As well, $7.5 million will go to training for K-12 educators and families, and $2.5 million will go to the Illinois State Board of Education to create the Student Care Department. That department will “lead the development of an inter-departmental student health and safety team” which provides assistance to districts and responds to parent concerns, according to the governor’s office.
ISBE also received $569 million through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, of which it has allocated $512 million directly to Illinois school districts to support COVID-19 responses.
The remaining funding will be allotted as follows: $33.3 million for laptops and tablets; $7.1 million for internet connectivity; $6.5 million for virtual coaching in support of an estimated 4,000 new teachers; $6.5 million for professional development; $2.8 million for state administration; and $685,000 for entities not eligible for the direct funds due to ineligibility for the federal Title I program.
Higher education will see $49 million from the governor’s allotment, with $46 million going directly to public universities and community colleges to address barriers created by COVID-19.
The program also contains $3 million in grants to support targeted initiatives to enroll and retain underrepresented, first-generation and high-need students at institutions of higher education in Illinois.
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APPRENTICESHIP GRANTS: Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday, July 14, announced $4.7 million in grant funding to expand the Illinois Apprenticeship Program to serve an additional 568 residents in training programs over the next two years.
The grants through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will go to 25 organizations across the state to expand training programs and partnerships with an emphasis on growth in underserved communities, according to the governor’s office.
The funding comes from a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and $1.9 million in discretionary workforce funds invested by the state.
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BALLOT ACCESS FOR REFERENDA: An Illinois group trying to get a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot is not entitled to looser regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, July 8.
The Committee for the Illinois Democracy Amendment is advocating for a state constitutional change mandating the General Assembly to take roll call votes on legislation proposing “stronger ethical standards for Illinois public officials.”
It would also allow residents to introduce related bills by submitting a petition including at least 100,000 signatures.
In a lawsuit filed against the secretary of state’s office and State Board of Elections, the organization’s attorneys argued Gov. JB Pritkzer’s social distancing and stay-at-home orders unconstitutionally prevented canvassers from securing the required 363,813 hand-written signatures — or, 8 percent of votes cast for governor in the last election — by May 3.
The three U.S. Court of Appeals judges wrote that the committee brought the problem on itself. The group was founded April 1, according to documents filed with the State Board of Elections, almost 17 months after Illinois rules permitted signature collection to begin and one month after Pritzker issued executive orders to manage COVID-19’s spread.
Committee members “had plenty of time to gather signatures before the pandemic began,” the judges wrote in their ruling. “That’s a good reason to conclude that they are not entitled to emergency” considerations.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn, an attorney representing the committee, said in an interview Friday he and his clients are “disappointed.”
Their options, he said, include appealing the decision — the committee is “free” to pursue the issues in this case in a district court, the judges wrote in their ruling — or attempting to change the law “so voters have the option to sign petitions electronically during the pandemic, which is not going away.”
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REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: A U.S. Supreme Court decision this week that could make it more difficult for women to access birth control will not impact Illinois law, state officials and advocacy groups say.
The nation’s highest court upheld a federal rule established in 2018 that allows employers with moral or religious objections to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health insurance cover the cost of birth control. The act includes an automatic exemption only for houses of worship. Under the Trump administration rule upheld Wednesday, essentially all non-governmental employers now have the ability to opt out.
Those organizations were required to actively withdraw from coverage they disagreed with so their insurance companies could offer free alternatives to employees.
In a statement, the Illinois Department of Insurance said the state’s reproductive health care coverage requirements for women and men “will continue to be enforced for plans subject” to the department’s oversight.
Those mandates were included in a sweeping overhaul of Illinois statute last year. The Reproductive Health Act, sponsored in the General Assembly by Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, declared access to contraception and other benefits as a fundamental right. That means no level of government in Illinois can infringe upon a person’s access to those services.
The RHA also specified that private insurance companies regulated by the state must cover abortions if they also cover pregnancy-related benefits.
That “monumental measure affirms women, not politicians or employers, can and should make their own decisions,” Bush said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm that focuses on defending religious rights, said the firm agrees the Supreme Court’s ruling does not affect Illinois regulations. Michael McHale, an attorney with the firm, said the decision “is to be applauded.”
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