Illinois ready to step forward into Phase 4, but Pritzker unfazed about tugging it back if COVID-19 cases surge

“I’m not afraid to protect the people of Illinois by moving a region back to an earlier phase if we see a surge,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at a Chicago news conference. “Ours will not be one of the states that takes no action in response to a return to the peak.”

SHARE Illinois ready to step forward into Phase 4, but Pritzker unfazed about tugging it back if COVID-19 cases surge
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Dept. of Public Health, discusses the state’s Phase 4 reopening and hospital metrics.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Dept. of Public Health, discusses the state’s Phase 4 reopening and hospital metrics.

Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

With all regions of the state set to advance to Phase 4 of reopening on Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker vowed that while Illinois has seen a “trajectory of success,” he’s not afraid to return to more restrictions should COVID-19 cases see a drastic uptick.

“I’m not afraid to protect the people of Illinois by moving a region back to an earlier phase if we see a surge,” Pritzker said at a Chicago news conference. “Ours will not be one of the states that takes no action in response to a return to the peak.”

Asked whether that could mean reinstating a stay-at-home order, the governor said, “I’m not afraid to move us backward to the things that we’ve done in the past.” He also cited once again prohibiting elective surgeries to make more space for hospital beds — as Texas has done — as another option for the state should cases go up.

Pritzker’s warning came as his public health department announced another 894 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 41 additional deaths – more evidence of the state’s improving situation, although the daily case number is the highest in nearly three weeks.

The governor’s administration lauded Illinoisans for following safety guidance that has led to the drop in new cases and deaths, including wearing face coverings, social distancing and washing hands frequently.

General manager Juan Becerril, 35, of Chicago, dispenses hand sanitizer at Flat Top Grill at 707 Church St. in Evanston last month.

General manager Juan Becerril, 35, of Chicago, dispenses hand sanitizer to customers preparing to eat lunch on the patio at Flat Top Grill at 707 Church St. in Evanston last month.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“Many other states are now seeing significant increases in cases, hospitalizations and intensive care usage, and they’re being forced to move backward and stay at home,” Pritzker said. “That’s not the story in Illinois. Here we have been gradually restoring business and leisure activities in a highly deliberate manner, guided by doctor’s advice. And Illinoisans are following the mitigations that we can each do ourselves.”

The Democratic governor blamed “politics or short-term thinking to drive decision making” as the reasons why some states are seeing more cases. And he warned that the battle against the pandemic is not over.

Pritzker said COVID-19-related deaths per day are down 65% from a high six weeks ago. Hospitalizations have also dropped by more than 60%.

“Even as our testing continues to grow, our COVID-19 cases are down 76% from a peak in the first week of May,” Pritzker said. The state also saw 30,000 tests returned on Thursday, marking the largest single day total for testing.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, warned that large gatherings are still risky, and face coverings are crucial to keeping the spread of the virus down.

“I can’t ignore those voicing opposition to face coverings. You are still part of this contract, too. I have to talk specifically to you. Your individual actions or even your inactions will still affect everyone in the state,” Ezike said. “I’m likening the refusal to wear face coverings to a game of Russian roulette, as we don’t know who’s infected, we don’t know if we are infected. We’re just taking a chance.”

Meanwhile, health officials on Thursday said the seven-day positivity rate remains at 3%.

The 41 additional deaths bring the total to 6,810 since a South Side woman became the state’s first casualty in mid-March, but it also maintains June’s downward trend. Just 1,431 of the deaths, or 21%, came this month.

Despite improving hospital metrics and a slowing in the number of deaths in the state, the new cases mark the most the state has seen on any given day since 975 cases were reported on June 6.

Notable changes for Phase 4 include allowing gatherings of 50 people or less — and reopening of indoor restaurant services to groups of 10 or less, with tables spaced 6 feet apart.

Indoor gyms can reopen at 50% capacity, with face coverings and social distancing required and group fitness classes capped at 50 people, according to the guidelines from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Pritzker will reissue executive orders regarding Phase 4 on Friday, including extending a moratorium on evictions. Property owners filed a lawsuit against Pritzker on Wednesday, arguing that the governor does not have the legal authority to halt evictions. The suit argues that the moratorium limits a housing provider’s “ability to address lease violations that are related to behavior and not COVID-19.”

Pritzker said he’s trying to balance the interests of the people who own properties and those who rent by providing rent assistance.

“It’s important for us to stand up for people who are working class, people who cannot otherwise afford to maintain on their own,” Pritzker said. “We do not want people to become homeless in this difficult crisis.”

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