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Coronavirus vaults Pritzker into national spotlight, and Trump’s tweet proves it

An angry tweet from President Donald Trump on Sunday put a national focus on Pritzker, who, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, is getting credit for his response to the coronavirus crisis.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker decries the federal government’s response to the coronavirus
Gov. J.B. Pritzker decries the federal government’s response to the coronavirus as Dr. Allison Arwady, left, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, looks on during a news conference March 11.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a statewide disaster proclamation on March 9 — when Illinois had just four confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Since then, he’s evolved into a national leader on the issue.

That became abundantly clear Sunday when the first-term governor drew the ire of President Donald Trump, who angrily tweeted at Pritzker after he criticized the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during an appearance on CNN.

Pritzker, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, is getting credit for being level-headed in the face of the coronavirus madness.

For Illinois residents, many of whom are glued to his daily briefings, the Democratic governor is being lauded for his decisiveness and his practical advice.

Behind-the-scenes, he’s even getting kudos from many of the state’s most prominent Republican elected officials and staffers.

It’s important to note that not everyone is on board. Plenty of business owners are upset over forced closures. And there are thousands of employees who’ve lost jobs with no immediate end in sight. There also are parents with limited resources to keep jobs and feed their kids.

But the governor’s daily guidance has quelled the fears of many of the state’s more than 12 million residents.

While there are weeks and months ahead in this pandemic, and room for mistakes, thus far Illinois has acted quickly. The state on Feb. 11 was the first in the nation to be able to test for coronavirus without having to send specimens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just two residents tested positive when that began.

The disaster proclamation came on March 9, followed four days later by Pritzker’s decision to close all Illinois schools, just hours after DeWine did the same.

On Friday, March 20, Pritzker took more drastic steps, announcing a complete stay-at-home order through April 7 as the state hit 585 cases and five deaths. Cuomo announced the same order just hours before Pritzker’s afternoon briefing.

Pritzker’s staff said the governor knew to take the virus seriously, even without knowing how bad it could get. And his words to Illinoisans have been realistic.

“The easy thing to say today is that soon everything will go back to the way it was. But I want to be honest with you about that too. We don’t know yet all the steps we are going to have to take to get this virus under control,” Pritzker said on Friday.

Pritzker is banding together with many of the nation’s governors — many of whom are Democrats — and the president is noticing. They’re talking frequently with each other to try to respond to some of the most dire consequences of the pandemic without waiting for federal help, including how it will impact nursing homes and jails.

Pritzker was in communication with Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee for guidance as he decided to stop visitors from coming into the state’s nursing homes. Pritzker’s announcement to close all Illinois schools came within an hour after DeWine, a Republican, shuttered Ohio’s schools.

Pritzker has held 14 daily press conferences since March 9. His staff of about 25 has been working daily since then.

The governor begins his day around 5 a.m. It ends publicly around 10 p.m.

The tweet response from Trump — just hours after he appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” was a surprise to Pritzker and his team. Pritzker was even more critical of Trump the previous weekend on “Meet The Press” when he said governors are on their own to face the pandemic. Pritzker also criticized the lack of staffing at O’Hare Airport as thousands of travelers faced medical screening. That also came with a tweet to the president on March 14, which read, “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”

An heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, Pritzker is the wealthiest sitting politician in the country, with his net worth estimated at $3.4 billion, according to Forbes. Trump’s net worth is estimated at $3.1 billion.

On March 16, the governor announced his endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden for president. Biden won the Illinois Democratic primary by 20-plus percentage points.

For now, politics is a bit on hold in Illinois as the state braces for an estimated 3,400 more cases of the coronavirus by next week.

But Trump’s tweet serves notice that Pritzker is now a major player on the national political stage.