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Politicians pushing to reopen faster are ‘idiots,’ says expert, blaming those not following rules for continued rise in COVID-19 cases

Infectious disease doctor at Northwestern says “everybody here seems to be just ready to chuck it and just go back to doing what they’re doing.”

A group plays footvolley in Warren Park in the West Ridge neighborhood on the North Side, Wednesday afternoon, May 13, 2020.
A group plays footvolley in Warren Park in the West Ridge neighborhood on the North Side, Wednesday afternoon, May 13, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

An infectious disease expert from Chicago has a simple explanation for why the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to mount after strict social restrictions have been in place for nearly two months: “People aren’t following the rules.”

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Northwestern University’s Institute of Global Health, warned that those disobeying the statewide stay-at-home order are exacerbating the public health crisis as he blasted the forces pushing to immediately reopen the economy.

“Look on the street. Only half of the people are wearing a mask,” Murphy said Wednesday. “There’s data from the phone companies about how people move. They’re moving around more. There’s definitely more traffic.”

While he said the pervasive toll is also attributable in part to increased testing and workers returning to their jobs, Murphy noted that keeping social distancing measures in place longer — and following them — is vitally important for beating back the coronavirus.

Recent figures have shown the disease is still spreading rapidly through communities. On Tuesday, state officials reported 4,014 new cases of COVID-19, the most recorded in a single day. And on Wednesday, the 192 reported deaths marked another grim benchmark.

“The same thing happened in northern Italy and in Spain, where they just felt like they were not getting ahead,” Murphy said. “It finally turned around there when they got serious with all the shelter-in-place.

“But I mean, everybody here seems to be just ready to chuck it and just go back to doing what they’re doing.”

Dr. Robert Murphy
Feinberg School of Medicine

Murphy specifically took aim at leaders pushing to relax restrictions locally. As he sees it, the clearest way to vanquish the disease is actually to “tighten it up.”

“They should not be loosening up. You know, like McHenry County and DuPage County want to have their own rules. Idiots!” he said, apparently referencing a push by leaders in the collar counties to be moved into a region in the governor’s Restore Illinois plan that doesn’t include Cook County in hopes they can reopen businesses sooner.

Meanwhile, both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike spent a good portion of Wednesday’s news conference harping on the fact that the virus remains a real and serious threat.

“This virus is still among us,” Pritzker said. “This pandemic is not over. And to pretend otherwise in a misguided attempt to reclaim what we’ve lost will only make this last longer.”

But even Murphy, a noted expert on infectious diseases, is struggling to truly understand the disease that has killed thousands across the state.

“Some places have turned it around, so what are we doing wrong? What else do we have to do? That’s what we have to figure out.”