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Bitter pill: Pritzker says without vaccine, treatment or immunity ‘returning to normalcy doesn’t exist’

Tempering that message even more, the governor released his “Restore Illinois” plan on the same day the state suffered its largest number of COVID-19 deaths in a single day — 176 more Illinois residents lost to the coronavirus.

A pigeon has the sidewalk to itself on Madison near State Street in the Loop during a foggy morning commute last month.
A pigeon has the sidewalk to itself on Madison near State Street in the Loop during a foggy morning commute last month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

With the state’s “cabin fever” escalating and warmer weather looming, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday unveiled a five-part reopening plan — with the stern warning that life won’t go back to normal any time soon.

Tempering that message even more, the governor released his “Restore Illinois” plan on the same day the state suffered its largest number of COVID-19 deaths in a single day — 176 more Illinois residents lost to the coronavirus.

“I know that we all have a passionate desire to return to the sense of normalcy that we felt before the world knew of COVID-19. Here’s the truth. And I don’t like it any more than you do,” Pritzker said at his daily briefing. “Until we have a vaccine, or an effective treatment, or enough widespread immunity that new cases fail to materialize, the option of returning to normalcy doesn’t exist.”

The Democratic governor said Illinoisans must figure out how to live with COVID-19 “until it can be vanquished.”

But for some, his reopening plan couldn’t come soon enough.

For weeks, Pritzker has faced questions about why certain regions of Illinois aren’t reopening quicker and how long hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents will remain out of work. In the past week, those questions have erupted into protests and lawsuits. And he’s seen some other governors move to open their states up, and President Donald Trump talk of allowing the federal government’s coronavirus social distancing guidelines to be “fading out.”

A man has the sidewalk to himself as he smokes a cigarette at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle in the Loop in March.
A man has the sidewalk to himself as he smokes a cigarette at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle in the Loop in March.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Now Illinois has its own plan, which the governor said is guided by public health metrics. And Pritzker said the state is already in Phase 2 of the five-part plan, meaning the statistical curve of COVID-19 cases is flattening. The governor’s “Restore Illinois” plan divides the state into four regions: Northeast Illinois, North Central Illinois, Central Illinois and Southern Illinois. The regions came from the Illinois Department of Public Health’s 11 Emergency Medical Services Regions and were further divided into the four factions.

Pritzker said some regions will be able to move to Phase 3 — called “recovery” — within weeks, but he warned there would not be any movement until at least May 29, the last day of his current stay-at-home order.

Phase 3 allows a number of businesses to reopen, with the use of “face coverings as the norm.” Non-essential manufacturing and non-essential businesses could get back to work with safety guidance, but telework will be “strongly” encouraged. Barber shops and salons can open; health and fitness centers could offer outdoor classes and one-on-one personal training; and the region’s state parks can open limited childcare and summer programs.

Also for regions that hit Phase 3, gatherings of 10 people are allowed. In the current Phase 2, gatherings are intended to be contained to the family unit or people who Illinoisans have already quarantined with, to reduce exposure to the virus.

There are important metrics attached to Pritzker’s plan. To get to the Phase 3, a region “must be at or under a 20% test positivity rate and increasing by no more than 10 percentage points over a 14-day period.” It must also show no overall increase in hospital admissions for COVID-19 symptoms for 28 days and have at least 14% of ICU beds, medical and surgery beds and ventilators available.

It’s unlikely the Northeast region, home to Chicago and Cook County, will get to that phase in three weeks. Of the 2,838 COVID-19 deaths in Illinois, 1,922 of them were in Cook County. That includes 854 deaths in suburban Cook and 1,068 in Chicago, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health. In Chicago, 83% of ICU beds are in use, and in the southwest suburbs, 86% are occupied.

Few cars could be seen traveling inbound on the Eisenhower Expressway, I-290, from the overpass at South Leavitt Street last month.
Few cars could be seen traveling inbound on the Eisenhower Expressway, I-290, from the overpass at South Leavitt Street last month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times files

The governor said data would be available online for the public to see. According to Pritzker’s office, the current positivity rate statewide is 16%. The metrics used to measure the phases will be online.

To get to Phase 4, regions would have to see “continued decline in its positivity rates and hospitalizations and maintain surge capacity,” in order for restaurants, bars, spas, cinemas, retail and health and fitness clubs to reopen with new capacity limits, Pritzker said.

That phase would also allow for the reopening of schools, summer and fall programs, childcare and higher education. All outdoor recreation programs would be allowed. Public gatherings in Phase 4 would be limited to 50 people, but the governor warned that number is subject to change “depending upon what the science tells us at the time.”

The ultimate phase, Phase 5, would mean a full reopening of the economy, but it includes a giant caveat. It would begin “with a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases.” The final phase allows for conventions, festivals and large events to begin again, meaning, events such as Lollapalooza and other major business conventions will be on hold until the state gets to this phase.

Pritzker also warned his plan “can and will be updated as research and science develop.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker during a COVID-19 briefing.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker during a COVID-19 briefing,
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

“Importantly, just as public health indicators will tell us when to move forward at any time, they could also signal that we need to move backward,” Pritzker said. “[The Illinois Department of Public Health] will be tracking metrics here as well. Moving backward is, honestly, the last thing that anyone wants to do, but if the virus begins to attack more people or the health care systems are heading toward becoming overwhelmed in any region, swift action will need to be taken.”

While state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, has called for a regional approach to the state’s stay-at-home order, the changes Pritzker announced Tuesday did not satisfy him.

Bailey, who got a Clay County Circuit Court judge to free him – and him alone — from Pritzker’s order by suing the governor, said he would rather have each one of Illinois’ 102 counties craft its own reopening plan, rather than divide the state into four regions.

“This pandemic plan — this work — needs to go to the county level,” Bailey said. “These orders that he is offering, I don’t care whether it’s masks — whatever it is — every order that he is coming up with now, is still illegal and unconstitutional.”

Then state Rep. Darren Bailey,, R-Xenia, last year.
State Rep. Darren Bailey,, R-Xenia, in February.
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State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, another downstate critic of Pritzker’s, said it’s time for the state to “get back to business.”

“The plan the governor sets out is unrealistic and likely will result in long term negative economic and social consequences for our state while neighboring states are adopting more reasonable and realistic plans,” Halbrook said in a statement.

Todd Maisch, the president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said the plan was “very welcomed,” though its effects may not be felt soon enough.

“The notion that the next phase of his plan can not kick in until the 29th of May seems a little arbitrary,” Maisch said. “There are people that want to get back to work. There are employers whose businesses are not going to survive between now and May 29. So to go ahead and say that’s the first date in which we’ll consider the next phase, it’s just not aggressive enough.”

Maisch said that every week that goes by “creates more and more business bankruptcies.”

“The governor has expressed his sentiment that he cares about that aspect of the crisis, but we think he could put more emphasis on the economic crisis to balance out his approach,” Maisch said. “There’s no doubt: every week that goes by, it means more businesses will never reopen their doors.”