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CAPITOL RECAP: Illinois begins Phase 4 of recovery from COVID-19 pandemic

CAPITOL RECAP: Illinois begins Phase 4 of recovery from COVID-19 pandemic

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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.

The state released new guidance for reopening businesses Monday, June 22.

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.

* * *

WORDS OF CAUTION: Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a new tool to track county-by-county progress in the fight against the novel coronavirus Thursday, June 25, but as the state readied to enter the next phase of reopening, he also warned that he would not hesitate to move certain regions backward if progress subsides.

“Obviously, every day I watch the numbers and I think, you know, are we going in the right direction? And I'm rooting for it to go the right direction and we're making policies that we hope will move it in the right direction,” Pritzker said when asked about the bump in new cases at a Chicago news conference Thursday. “We're watching. I would wait to make a judgment about whether there's some direction here that it's going, but right now I would call it stable.”

Pritzker said the stability has helped move the state toward Phase 4 of reopening Friday, but Illinoisans will need to continue to wash their hands, remain six feet apart from others in public and wear face coverings if they want to keep the numbers low.

If COVID-19 numbers do increase, a reversion to previous phases is possible, however.

“I'm not afraid to protect the people of Illinois by moving a region back to an earlier phase if we see a surge,” he said. “Ours will not be one of the states that takes no action in response to a return to the peak.”

Pritzker announced the state launched 12 mobile community testing teams that will move throughout the state to “mitigate and suppress emerging outbreaks, including places like meatpacking plants, nursing homes, or other traceable gatherings.”

The state has also increased its number of contact tracers by 20 percent since June 1 and has more than 550 active, the governor said. Another 250 tracers will join them “in the coming weeks,” he added.

* * *

REOPENING SCHOOLS: Illinois released new guidelines for schools, colleges and universities to return to in-person learning in the fall, but leaders warned those plans could change if health metrics related to the COVID-19 pandemic stop improving.

“This fall will not be business as usual, and we will update our guidance as needed,” State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said during a news conference Tuesday, June 23, in Chicago. “In response to challenging and changing public health conditions, schools and districts must be prepared to return to remote learning if the virus surges again.”

Students and teachers will be required to wear face coverings if they are medically able, gatherings in one place will be limited to no more than 50 people and schools must adhere to stricter cleaning and disinfecting guidelines as well as conduct regular symptom checks.

Pritzker said at the news conference every district must develop its own plan based on those guidelines. Ayala added districts and individual schools will soon send additional information to parents and students.

Pritzker said the Illinois Emergency Management Agency will provide public K-12 districts in Illinois with 2.5 million cloth face masks, allowing schools to provide one to all students and staff.

Universities and community colleges will have similar guidelines for a fall reopening, including social distancing and physical spacing requirements, hand sanitizing stations, face covering requirements and symptom monitoring. Schools are also developing policies around traffic flow, cleaning of public spaces and staggered schedules for the use of laboratories, auditoriums and other group facilities, according to guidelines.

At this time, the governor’s office said, colleges expect dormitories, cafeterias, libraries, bookstores and other amenities to be available to students provided they meet approved guidelines.

If someone in a school tests positive, those who were in close contact with them — that is, within six feet for 15 to 30 minutes without a face covering, according to Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health — would be expected to quarantine for 14 days.

Pritzker said local and county health departments will play a major role in deciding a path forward when such a positive test occurs.

* * *

COVID-19 HEALTH STATISTICS: The Illinois Department of Public Health on Thursday, June 25, announced 894 new cases of COVID-19 over the previous 24 hours, the most since June 6 when there were 975 reported. But IDPH also announced there were 31,686 more tests completed over the previous 24 hours — the highest single-day total yet — making the positivity rate 2.8 percent for the one-day period.

Over the past seven days, the positivity rate ranged from 2.4 to 2.9, and over the seven days prior to that period, it ranged from 1.8 to 3.1, meaning Thursday’s rate was within the range of average of the past two weeks.

Hospitalization metrics remained on a downtrend in Illinois as well, in contrast, Pritzker said, to states like Texas.

As of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, there were 1,626 total hospital beds in use by COVID-19 patients, 399 of which were intensive care unit beds. Both were slightly up from the day before, but represented the second-lowest numbers since the state began reporting the metrics daily on April 12. There were 216 ventilators in use, the lowest amount in the same span.

“But now I want to tell you that there still is a reality check behind that. The virus has not been eradicated. The virus persists, and we don't yet have a vaccine or a highly effective treatment that's widely available,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said at the news conference. “So although we are seeing fewer and fewer cases, fewer deaths, people are still being infected and people are still losing their lives.”

There were 41 more COVID-19-related deaths reported Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 6,810, while the total cases grew to 139,434 among more than 1.4 million tested.

The county-level metrics are available at https://www.dph.illinois.gov/countymetrics. The map shows each county, which is blue if metrics remain “on the right track,” according to Ezike, but turns orange if metrics are trending upward.

* * *

BUSINESS RECOVERY GRANTS: The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced this week that it will soon start releasing funds from two grant programs aimed at helping small businesses that have suffered losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest that occurred during recent protests over racial injustice.

The administration is releasing $85 million through the Business Interruption Grant program and the Rebuild Distressed Communities grant program. The money is part of $900 million that Pritzker recently announced will be released in response to economic impacts of the pandemic.

Both programs are aimed at small businesses whose operations were either restricted or completely shut down during the pandemic. They are also targeted at businesses located in “disproportionately impacted areas” — low income communities that have experienced high rates of COVID-19 cases and communities damaged during recent civil unrest.

According to a release from DCEO, the first round of Business Interruption Grants, or BIG, will make $60 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds available for 3,500 businesses such as bars, restaurants, barbershops and salons, health and fitness centers as well as businesses in areas where there have been reports of property damage from civil unrest. The money comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

The grants will range from $10,000 to $20,000 and will be available to businesses that have suffered significant losses due to restricted operations, mandatory closures or property damage. To qualify, those businesses must have been in operation for at least three months before March 2020.

Businesses can begin applying for the grants starting Friday, June 26. The deadline to apply is Tuesday, July 7. Potential applicants can download an application and review the complete criteria for the program on the DCEO website.

* * *

BROADBAND EXPANSION: Pritzker traveled to the Henry County town of Geneseo on Wednesday, June 24, to announce the awarding of $50 million in grants to 28 projects aimed at expanding broadband internet access across the state.

The $50 million is part of the “Connect Illinois” program that was included in the state’s recently-passed “Rebuild Illinois” capital improvements program. The state funds are being matched with more than $65 million in non-state funds for a total investment of over $115 million.

“Connect Illinois is about the right of all our communities to access health care, education, and economic opportunity – because in the 21st century, all those rights are tied to digital connectivity,” Pritzker said during an event at an event at Olson Acres Farms in Geneseo. “The unacceptable consequences of disparities in broadband access were clear before the COVID-19 pandemic – and over the last few months, we’ve seen firsthand what it means when a small business that had to close its doors has no online shop, what it means when an elderly couple has no safe way to get medical advice at a distance, what it means when a child has no ability to access homework assignments online.”

The Connect Illinois program calls for spending $420 million statewide for broadband expansion through 2024, including $20 million for the Illinois Century Network, a high-speed broadband network that serves K-12 and higher education institutions. The first round of grants that were announced Wednesday were awarded to 18 internet service providers, rural cooperatives, nonprofits and local governments.

* * *

UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS: The U.S. Department of Labor released statistics Thursday, June 25, showing 705,878 Illinoisans received unemployment insurance for the week ending June 20.

While that was a decrease of 4,401 continued unemployment claims overall from the previous week, according to the data, the state still saw 46,005 new initial claims for the week ending June 20, an increase of 1,311 new claims from the previous week.

As the unemployment numbers remain high,  Pritzkr said this week the Illinois Department of Employment Security is continually trying to expand call center capacity to try to accommodate increased claim volume.

He also said each state agency and department “has a kind of a reopen plan that either has been developed or is being developed,” but did not say when IDES might start opening facilities for claimants having trouble getting through to a department representative.

“It sort of depends on the locations, it depends upon the number of people that would normally be in that space and so on. We have health guidance for people who work at IDES, just like we do any other business or that we're trying to reopen,” he said at a news conference Tuesday, June 23.

* * *

STATE RESPONDS TO GOP LAWSUIT: State regulation of the number of people allowed at gatherings does not violate Illinoisans’ First Amendment rights, the attorney general’s office argued in a court document.

A lawsuit filed on June 15 by the state’s Republican Party alleged Pritzker’s executive order limiting gatherings to 10 residents or fewer was unconstitutional because it restricted the party’s freedom of speech. It also contended the order treated religious institutions and protests differently than other groups, which breaches the U.S. Constitution’s equal protections clause.

The governor’s May 29 executive order suggested houses of worship follow COVID-19 safety guidelines — limit indoor services to 10 people, for example — but did not require they do so. The GOP also pointed to Pritzker’s attendance at a Black Lives Matter demonstration as evidence he was not enforcing his order against groups he supports.

But neither allegation is accurate, the state wrote in a document filed Wednesday, June 24.

“The 10-person limitation on gatherings is no different for First Amendment purposes than a building occupancy limit imposed by a municipal fire code,” officials at the attorney general’s office wrote.

The Constitution protects speech and the right to assemble, but allows governmental bodies with a “compelling interest” to protect “the safety of the general public,” according to the argument.

* * *

ANTI-ABORTION GROUP SUES: An Illinois anti-abortion nonprofit filed a federal lawsuit challenging Pritzker’s social gathering restrictions, arguing it should be excluded from caps on attendees to charity, planning and educational events.

Illinois Right to Life’s lawsuit was filed in the Northern District just over one week after the state Republican Party filed a near-identical argument in the same court. The two groups are represented by the Chicago-based firm Liberty Justice Center.

The cases center around the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause — because Pritzker’s executive order contains a carve-out for churches and has not been enforced against systemic racism protestors, it should not apply to the nonprofit, either, they claim.

According to the court document — written by Daniel Suhr, the attorney also representing the Republican Party — religious institutions are permitted to hold socially-distanced services of more than 10 people. Faith-based associations are “encouraged to consult and follow the recommended practices” published by the Illinois Department of Public Health, but “are not required to obey them.”

Illinois Right to Life already canceled several previously-planned events, rescheduled others and received “minimal” attendance at ones they were able to hold, Suhr wrote. The group argued that due to the nature of its advocacy work, remote alternatives are not helpful.

* * *

FINANCIAL AID TO SCHOOLS: Pritzker on Tuesday, June 23, said the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, provided $510 million in relief directly to school districts to address local needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(State Superintendent of Schools) Dr. (Carmen) Ayala and I are encouraging all districts to use this funding to close the digital divide by providing devices and internet connectivity and are directing the majority of the remaining funding to purchasing laptops, tablets, virtual coaching for new teachers and internet connectivity to advance a vision of equity for our schools and keep our kids on track for success,” the governor said.

Pritzker’s office said the Illinois State Board of Education will use another $54.1 million in CARES act funding to provide funding to schools in six categories: laptops and tablets, internet connectivity, virtual coaching for teachers, professional development, and support for entities that cannot receive direct funds.

* * *

POLICE MISCONDUCT RECORDS: The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last week that the city of Chicago may not destroy records of police misconduct that are more than five years old, despite a contract with city’s police union that requires city officials to do so.

In a 6-1 ruling Wednesday, June 17, the high court said that a state law requiring public records to be maintained supersedes a provision in the city’s contract with the union.

The decision comes at a time when police departments throughout the country, including the Chicago Police Department, have been the target of protests and civil unrest in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The provision in the contract with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7 requiring the city to destroy records of investigations and discipline arising from police misconduct has been the subject of litigation and arbitration for nearly thirty years.

The provision dates back to 1981 and has remained largely unchanged since.

* * *

BALLOT ACCESS LAWSUIT: A federal court has denied the Illinois State Board of Elections’ request to suspend enforcement of looser ballot access requirements for third-party candidates in the November election.

The court ruled Sunday, June 21, that the elections board failed to show a petition filing deadline extension – previously granted on May 15 by Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois – would “irreparably” damage officials’ ability to conduct the Nov. 3 general election, as they alleged in court filings.

The court added that third-party candidates — including those running for office under the banner of the Libertarian and Green parties — would suffer “clear harm” if the board’s request was granted.

At the end of April, Pallmeyer moved the deadline for third-party candidates to file a petition to Aug. 7, decreased the amount of signatures necessary for those petitions, and allowed for those signatures to be collected electronically.

The concessions were made in response to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Illinois’ statutorily mandated elections rules during COVID-19. The filing deadline prescribed by state law would have been on Monday.

The appeals court wrote in its opinion that, “Despite agreeing to each of these terms,” the elections board asked Pallmeyer to reconsider her order a few weeks later. She opted only to move the filing deadline up to July 20.

One month later, on June 9, the board asked a federal appeals court to suspend enforcement of Pallmeyer’s order completely and allow it to “determine necessary election modifications” instead.

“We conclude that none of the evidence submitted by the board shows that the July 20 filing deadline or the reduced signature requirement is likely to impede election officials’ ability to meet the deadline for transmitting ballots to military or overseas voters,” the judges wrote. “In contrast, the (Libertarians and Greens) have provided evidence showing that they would be significantly injured if we” suspended Pallmeyer’s order.

* * *

GOP CANDIDATE SEEKS RELIEF: A central Illinois Republican state senate candidate who does not have enough valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot asked a federal judge Tuesday, June 23, to also apply loosened election requirements to him.

After the March 17 primary election, Alexander Ruggieri was chosen to fill the Republican Party’s nomination vacancy for the 52nd senate district race. To succeed in qualifying for the general election ballot, where he would challenge incumbent Scott Bennett (D-Champaign), Ruggieri needed to collect 1,000 voter signatures and submit his petition to the Illinois State Board of Elections by June 1.

According to his court filing, he gathered 1,152 signatures. After election officials reviewed the validity of those signatures, though, they determined only 949 were acceptable. That objection “threatens to keep Ruggieri from the general election ballot,” he argued.

Ruggieri, in an effort to qualify for the Nov. 3 election, requested he be looped into an existing court order that applies to third party candidates for the upcoming election cycle. If a judge signs off, the order would, among other things, lower the threshold of signatures Ruggieri must collect by 90 percent, push his filing deadline to July 20 and allow him to submit electronic signatures.

 

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