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Coronavirus live blog, May 27, 2020: Illinois movie theaters push Pritzker to let them open at 50% capacity

Here’s Wednesday’s news on how COVID-19 is impacting Chicago and Illinois.

More people have died in Cook County in less than five months this year than in all of last year.

And more than half of those 2020 deaths were linked to COVID-19.

Those are the grim statistics released Wednesday by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, where pathologists are now conducting as many as four times as many autopsies on any given day.

That wasn’t all the news from Chicago and the state Wednesday. Here’s what else happened as Illinoisans continued to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.


News

8:55 p.m. Movie theaters pressure Pritzker to loosen up and allow them to open at 50% capacity

The front entrance of a closed AMC Theaters location in Burbank, California.
Chris Pizzello/AP Photo (file)

Movie theater owners are pressuring Gov. J.B. Pritzker to let them reopen to additional capacity this summer to boost ticket revenue and pave the way for major studios to release their traditional summer blockbusters.

Pritzker wants to keep movie theaters closed until Phase 4 of his reopening plan—June 26 at the earliest—and cap the number of movie patrons at 50 per theater.

Chris Johnson, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of Illinois, is not overly concerned about waiting until Phase 4. His major complaint is the 50-person cap.

Johnson called it unreasonably low at a time when a handful of theaters — like the Pickwick in Oak Park, the Tivoli in Downers Grove and Chicago’s Music Box — still seat 1,000 while remodeled theaters with recliners have “already taken out two-thirds of their seating.” In those theaters, social distancing can easily be maintained, he said.

“We want to have the capacity, rather than a hard 50, based on social distancing so that, if you have a bigger auditorium and you can seat groups six feet apart, whatever that number is would be allowed,” Johnson said.

Read the full story from City Hall reporter Fran Spielman here.

7:34 p.m. Post time at two tracks? Hawthorne, Fairmount champing at the bit to resume horse racing

Illinois’ struggling horse racing industry could be back off to the races as soon as next week without any spectators in attendance, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he’s not quite ready to pick up the starting bugle just yet.

The governor’s office said Wednesday evening it was in the home stretch of implementing a plan to resume fan-free operations at the state’s three racetracks, with health protections in place for workers.

Hawthorne Race Course had already bolted from the starting gate, though, with the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association announcing the track in west suburban Stickney will reopen June 6 for drivers and trainers, but not railbirds.

They could be off and running even sooner at Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville, where the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association says they’ve gotten clearance for thoroughbred racing to “resume as early as June 1.”

Reporter Mitchell Armentrout has the full story.

6:45 p.m. MGM Resorts, Caesars to reopen Las Vegas Strip casinos June 4

For travel and gaming fans, the wait is over: The Las Vegas Strip is reopening.

At least part of it.

MGM Resorts International announced Wednesday the reopening of some of its Las Vegas properties beginning June 4.

The Bellagio, New York New York, MGM Grand Las Vegas and The Signature hotel/casinos will open their doors following the March shut-down of all MGM Resort casinos world-wide due to the coronavirus pandemic. The number of rooms available and guests on property will be limited.

The reopening will follow as strict seven-point safety plan, according to the official announcement.

Reporter Miriam Di Nunzio has the full story.

4 p.m. Restaurants prepare for outdoor dining as city moves to next phase of reopening

Many restaurants are eager to restore some semblance of normality to the city’s dining scene as officials begin scaling back restrictions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

But what will the future of dining look like as the threat of COVID-19 still casts a dark cloud over people gathering in confined spaces?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker shared new guidelines Sunday offering a glimpse of what customers can expect when restaurants begin reopening Friday — outside Chicago, anyway.

For now, restaurants are limited to outdoor dining and drinking, and only for parties of five people or less.

“In every aspect of our pandemic response, and especially as we begin to safely reopen meaningful swaths of our economy, our number one priority must be the health and safety of our workers, our customers, and Illinoisans at large,” said Pritzker in a statement.

Read the full story here.

3:29 p.m. Cook County death toll in less than five months surpasses entire 2019 tally: ‘We do not believe that these deaths had to occur’

More people have died in Cook County in less than five months this year than in all of last year.

And more than half of those 2020 deaths were linked to COVID-19.

Those are the grim statistics released Wednesday by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, where pathologists are now conducting as many as four times as many autopsies on any given day.

So far this year, the office has handled more than 6,500 deaths in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the 6,586 cases the medical examiner’s office has recorded in 2020 more than half — 3,518 — were COVID-19 related deaths.

Read the full story from Rachel Hinton here.

2:42 p.m. Illinois coronavirus death toll eclipses 5,000

Another 160 people have died of COVID-19 in Illinois, with the state’s fatalities now totaling 5,083.

Officials on Wednesday, however, said the latest deaths could include some from over the holiday weekend. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office on Tuesday warned the 39 deaths recorded then could have been lower due to a lack of reporting on Memorial Day, when many state laboratory workers were given a day off.

The high death tally comes after four consecutive days seeing fewer than 100 deaths, something that had not occurred since mid-April, when the state recorded its first 100-plus day. Wednesday also marked the 22nd day in which more than 100 deaths were reported.

There were also 1,111 new cases reported, raising the state’s total to 114,306. The state received 17,179 test results, officials said. In total, the state has performed 803,973 coronavirus tests.

Read the full story from Tina Sfondeles here.

2 p.m. What reopening Illinois will look like on Friday

The four regions in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan are set to see some restrictions loosened on Friday.

Pritzker on Tuesday planned to outline the regional metrics needed to head into the third phase of his reopening plan. That includes a positivity rate under 20% and stable or declining hospital metrics. All regions are set to move forward on Friday, Pritzker’s office said.

Pritzker released guidelines Sunday for retailers, manufacturers, barbershops, salons, health and fitness centers, and other businesses that will be allowed to reopen when the state enters the next phase of its “Restore Illinois” plan.

In addition to social distancing, wearing masks and hand-washing, Phase 3 of Pritzker’s plan includes some specific guidelines for places like gyms, hair salons and day camps.

Read the full story for more on the Phase 3 guidelines here.

1:57 p.m. As many as 130K employees might return to work in Phase 3 of Chicago’s reopening plan

As many as 130,000 employees — one-third of those sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic — could return to work under Phase 3 of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to slowly and safely reopen the Chicago economy, top mayoral aides said Wednesday.

Ten industry-specific groups, involving 200 people, developed guidelines that are at least as strong as those released by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and stronger in a few instances.

Chief among them is Lightfoot’s decision to limit nonessential retailers to 25% of normal capacity instead of 50%. The 25% cap would also apply to “common areas” in commercial office buildings.

“Chicago is a dense city. In many contexts, we believe the 25% capacity restriction is the right place to start,” said Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development.

Read the full story from City Hall reporter Fran Spielman here.

12:19 p.m. No summer camp? No problem. Here are 5 ways to re-create the experience for kids stuck at home

We are headed into possibly the weirdest summer ever.

We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. School ended early. Kids are bored. Parents are about to lose their ever-loving minds. And to top it all off, summer camp is probably canceled, too, or at least it’s going to look very, very different.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated considerations for camps amid the COVID-10 outbreak, including a “decision tree” for directors to use to determine whether their programs should go on. The American Camp Association followed up with a field guide. Camps must also follow regulations set by state and local authorities.

“Camp is about the connection. It’s about exploring,” says Penn Henthorn, director of programs and camps for Camp Fire Heart of Oklahoma. “Our outcomes are based on critical skills you need to work with other people: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity. We just get to let kids have fun and those things are part of the process.”

While social distancing is making all of those things a challenge, there are ways to keep the important experiences of camp going while families stay home.

Here are four ideas from camp counselors themselves.

11:07 a.m. Less than 60 percent of CPS students are logging on for online classes most days, new data shows

Newly released and long-awaited data from the nation’s third-largest school system show what many have suspected: In the best circumstances, remote learning has been an uneven and dubious replacement for in-person instruction; and in the worst, it has left students entirely disconnected from their teachers.

Fewer than 60% of all Chicago Public Schools students are engaging with online remote learning three or more days per week, data unveiled Wednesday shows. Vulnerable populations, such as kids who are homeless and black and Latino students whose families have been disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, are logging on at lower rates. Tens of thousands of students aren’t being reached by their schools at all despite computer and internet access having largely been achieved.

The report, which includes some of the most detailed metrics in the country, measures 294,000 students at district-run schools and focuses on the week of May 11, the most recently measured time span which also saw the best engagement thus far. Officials said they don’t have access to data for another 60,000 who attend charters.

Read the full story from Nader Issa here.

9:36 a.m. Museum of Science and Industry cuts 84 jobs

The Museum of Science and Industry has laid off about one quarter of its staff citing the financial challenges of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

The museum is also requiring the remaining staff to take 10 furlough days and is introducing “graduated pay reductions” for the majority of employees, spokeswoman Julie Parente said.

“We made these decisions to protect the museum’s long-term future, so that we can continue to inspire the inventive genius in everyone,” Parente said in a statement. “We are grateful for everything that our staff has done for the museum and especially for the students, families, educators, schools and communities we serve.”

In total, the museum has laid off 84 of its 358 full-time employees, Parente said.

Read the full story from Stefano Esposito here.

7:58 a.m. Pritzker ready to toast ‘cocktails-to-go’ — but Lightfoot wants a chaser

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday said he’ll sign legislation that will legalize “cocktails-to-go” to aid ailing business owners during the pandemic.

What that will look like in Chicago — a hotspot for COIVD-19 — and when that may happen remains unclear.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot is supportive of the plan, mayoral aides says they are exploring changes to it. That’s allowed under the legislation, which gives municipalities local control to either opt out or make changes.

The next City Council meeting is scheduled for June 17, and it’s unlikely a meeting would be called earlier to take up the plan.

Read the full story from Tina Sfondeles here.

6:52 a.m. Total Recall? GOP quartet seeks to oust Pritzker, insisting ‘it’s going to be difficult’ but not ‘impossible’

SPRINGFIELD — Suburban Republican Allen Skillicorn insists he would really rather Gov. J.B. Pritzker finish out his term than be booted from office.

“Frankly I just hope the governor fixes the unemployment system, so people can get their unemployment and we should move on from this,” the state representative said. “I mean, I would much prefer that.”

Whether the governor is able to solve the unemployment problems that have arisen during the coronavirus crisis remains to be seen, but Skillicorn isn’t waiting to find out.

The East Dundee Republican launched a recall effort to remove the Chicago Democrat from office — an uphill battle that would require bipartisan support from legislators and hundreds of thousands of signatures from voters to get on the ballot.

Skillicorn said troubles with the Illinois Department of Employment Security website was the last straw.

He said he would “happily” take his recall petition “off the table,” if the governor fixes the problem. But it might not matter what Skillicorn leaves on the table, given the high threshold for a successful recall petition.

Read the full report from Neal Earley here.


New cases


Analysis & Commentary

12:14 p.m. Steering a middle course between COVID-19 hopes and fears

Despite what many people hoped, COVID-19 is clearly worse than the seasonal flu. But despite what other people feared, it does not seem to be nearly as lethal as the “Spanish flu” of 1918, which killed about 0.7% of the total U.S. population — equivalent to more than 2 million people today.

As we move from lockdowns to something more closely resembling normal life, the emerging evidence about the threat posed by COVID-19 should inform our judgment about which precautions make sense. The initial, ham-handed approach — which confined hundreds of millions of people to their homes except for government-approved purposes — should be replaced by more carefully targeted measures focused on protecting the people who face the highest risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current “best estimate” of the death rate among Americans who develop COVID-19 symptoms is 0.4%. By that measure — the symptomatic case fatality rate — COVID-19 is roughly four times as deadly as the seasonal flu but far less deadly than the Spanish flu.

Read Jacob Sullum’s full column here.

6:33 a.m. Temperature checks on deck: Reopening guidelines usher in new normal

You’re familiar, perhaps, with those signs in restaurants and bars: “No shoes. No shirt. No service.” Add this one for the COVID-19 pandemic era as Illinois and Chicago start to phase in reopening plans: A fever keeps you out, too.

Temperature checks, staggered operating hours and eliminating many amenities taken for granted — from water fountains to dropping in anytime at the health club — are what Illinoisans could be dealing with in the coming days. Could be, because so far, the state does not have an enforcement mechanism in place.

For at least 10 industries in Illinois, guidelines for the “new normal” arrived Sunday when the state released a series of detailed reopening procedures to kick in as soon as Friday.

Whether employers and customers will adapt and whether businesses can be profitable under the new rules will be key to the revival of the Illinois economy.

Gov. J. B. Pritzker at his Tuesday briefing called the provisions “minimum expectations moving forward.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday issued guidelines tailored to Chicago and aligned with the state.

Maintaining six feet of social distancing at all times, using face coverings, frequent hand washing or sanitizing remain key to curbing the pandemic. To do this in a workplace will require extensive — and perhaps expensive — reconfiguring.

Lynn Sweet breaks down what’s ahead for owners, workers and customers.