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Gov. Pritzker walks a fine line between public safety and angry critics in reopening Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said last week that he would be posting “guidance, not mandatory restrictions” on how religious leaders canprotect congregants from COVID-19.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said last week that he would be posting “guidance, not mandatory restrictions” on how religious leaders canprotect congregants from COVID-19.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register

In the period just before and after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his first stay-at-home order in March, houses of worship in Illinois reportedly experienced 13 COVID-19 outbreaks, resulting in 88 cases.

Since then, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois has seen no such outbreaks — until one was revealed last week. IDPH told me of a very recent church-related outbreak of 39 cases, including the pastor.

That outbreak was acknowledged last Wednesday by the administrator of the Jackson County Health Department. The administrator told WSIU Radio that the unnamed Southern Illinois church had been holding services in defiance of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

And now, you gotta figure more church-related outbreaks could happen if people aren’t careful.

Pritzker told reporters last week that his administration will be posting “guidance, not mandatory restrictions, for all faith leaders to use in their efforts to ensure the health and safety of their congregants.” He said the guidance would be “suggestions” on capacity limits, indoor gatherings of 10 persons or less, etc.

“Governor Pritzker has capitulated, and the Thomas More Society is claiming victory in a trio of church lawsuits charging Illinois’ governor with religious discrimination,” a spokesperson for the organization said.

And then Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed his office’s response, mandated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to an emergency request by two Illinois churches that wanted the governor’s restrictions lifted. In that response, Raoul claimed the two churches’ filing was basically moot because the governor’s executive order would expires the next day.

“The governor, Raoul wrote, “has announced that after that date religious gatherings will no longer be subject to mandatory restrictions.”

The governor’s subsequent order specifically says it “does not limit the free exercise of religion.”

Pritzker has always predicted ultimate victory in every case filed against his stay-at-home order, and his office pushed back against suggestions that he has capitulated to churches. But the demand from Kavanaugh, a Trump nominee, may have spooked him.

Either way, nobody wants to make arrests or create a martyr, particularly a religious martyr. And most religious denominations will be complying with the new guidance. As for those who won’t listen, there’s not much anyone can do outside of law enforcement, and local sheriffs would likely resist orders to put preachers in jail.

Best to just declare victory and move on. If there are more outbreaks like those before the stay-at-home order was issued, perhaps church leaders and their congregations will eventually learn from it.

Meanwhile, the governor appears to be pushing ahead into the even less restrictive Phase 4 of his “Restore Illinois” plan next month without first setting up a robust contact tracing program.

For weeks and weeks, Pritzker’s “Three T’s” have been: Testing, Tracing and Treatment. The state, he has said, can’t do much about developing a treatment for COVID-19, but he has pledged to ramp up the state’s testing and contact tracing program.

Pritzker has done well with testing, but he didn’t hire anyone to set up a contact tracing program until early May, and he appeared in East St. Louis near the end of May to showcase the start of a local pilot project.

The governor’s Restore Illinois plan explicitly states that one condition for the state’s four IDPH regions moving into Phase 4 by the end of June is: “Begin contact tracing and monitoring within 24 hours of diagnosis for more than 90% of cases in region.”

On Wednesday, the governor said, “We’re at about 30 percent of the contact tracing that we need today.” The governor’s office claims they’re actually above that right now, but Pritzker repeated that figure on Friday.

And then Pritzker said, “we’re going to get to hopefully about 60-plus percent, it’s going to take us weeks and weeks, I can’t tell you how long, I mean some people think it will take through August to do it.”

One issue, the governor said, is that contact tracing cannot be mandated. A quick foray into social media will show you how insane the ever-growing conspiracy theories have become on this particular topic.

Anyway, my colleague Hannah Meisel asked Pritzker yesterday whatever happened to that 90 percent target. “Those are, I guess, internal goals,” the governor replied.

I was told by the governor’s office that Pritzker wants to focus on readily quantifiable, health-related goals. Contact tracing is apparently no longer essential.

Not to mention that Chicago isn’t scheduled to have its contact tracing fully operational until sometime in September. The city won’t want to be left behind.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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