After complaints from some suburban and downstate officials seeking greater control in fighting the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday said he would divide Illinois into smaller regions under his reopening plan, separating hard hit Chicago and suburban Cook County from other areas.
The Chicago Democrat cast the retooling from four regions to 11 as part of a “a more granular approach in this phase of the response to COVID-19.”
The governor’s move comes as the state reported another 1,187 coronavirus cases and eight additional deaths from COVID-19. It’s the fourth time this month that the daily caseload has topped the 1,000 mark. The rolling seven-day positivity rate — the percent of positive cases among those newly tested — also crept up to 3.1%, from 2.6% less than a week ago.
The newly reshuffled reopening plan is based on the 11 regions in the state’s Emergency Medical Service regions that are used by state public health officials. Chicago’s collar counties will also be divided into three separate regions under the governor’s updated plan.
Pritzker said the new, smaller regions will give the state more flexibility to combat coronavirus if a locality experiences an outbreak, “to carefully, but deliberately — depending on the severity of the situation — control the spread of the virus while continuing to allow a region to be open to the greatest extent possible.”
Pritzker’s announcement comes after both Democratic and Republican lawmakers called for more local control over the coronavirus plan. The four regions the state is currently divided into are too big, they argue, and ignore the realities on the ground in individual communities.
Some legislators from the collar counties said they don’t like being grouped with Chicago in Illinois’ northern region under the governor’s original plan, arguing that some suburban and rural parts of the collar counties are not facing nearly the type of viral outbreak that is occurring in Chicago.
On June 26, all regions in Illinois moved into Phase 4 of the governor’s reopening plan, meaning that bars, restaurants and some other public spaces could reopen with limited capacity.
Pritzker said Phase 5 couldn’t come until there’s a vaccine, “a very effective treatment or the elimination of cases over a sustained period of time.”
But he also said: “Opening up our economy does not have to come with a spike in cases. Other countries have done it successfully, while reducing cases and infection rates, but that requires vigilance on the part of all of us.”
Pritzker’s new grouping creates six downstate and five Chicago area regions. Chicago and suburban Cook County each are divided into distinct regions, and Kankakee and Will counties make up a south suburban region, Kane and DuPage a west suburban region and Lake and McHenry a north suburban one.
Pritzker’s revisions received positive reviews from some Downstate Republicans who have called for more local control.
State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, who said back in May that Pritzker’s plan “doesn’t play in Peoria” said he is pleased that the governor is now dividing the state up based on the existing Emergency Medical Services regions.
“That is something that I always thought made better sense, because it is using the alignment of hospital service areas and emergency medical transport, and there’s some reasoning for why those districts are aligned the way they are,” Spain said.
State Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who is suing Pritzker over his reopening plan, said he was “pleased that he is evidently listening” to downstate lawmakers such as himself and reconsidering earlier decisions, but Bailey said he still thinks the governor is overstepping his authority.
“That doesn’t necessarily change the fact that he doesn’t have the authority to enforce his tiers or his plans,” Bailey said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Pritzker’s reshuffling comes as Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned Wednesday that the city may need to roll back its reopening unless young people start paying closer attention to social distancing and face covering guidelines.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, echoed the mayor’s remarks Wednesday, noting there have been “dozens and dozens of reports just this week” of outbreaks at house parties, among team sports and at churches.
Ezike said many of the new cases were among the young, from ages 10 to 29.
“They are having higher case rates now than ever before in this pandemic,” she said
She urged parents to “assist and guide these teenagers and young adults to make the right decisions, as everyone’s decisions affect all of us.”
Illinois public health officials are struggling to avoid the backsliding in other states with more aggressive reopening plans, particularly in the South and the West.
The optimism over Illinois’ steadily declining coronavirus numbers dimmed a bit last week, when the state saw a three-day stretch with new COVID-19 cases topping 1,000, including one day that marked the highest daily total in five weeks.
The 1,187 new cases reported on Wednesday come after a few days of comparatively lower numbers and bring the average daily total this month to 900.
But even as the new infections rise and fall, the number of deaths have stayed relatively low. The eight reported Wednesday bring the state’s total to 7,226. But the average daily fatality rate for the month is about 20, down sharply from May, when an average of about 100 people were dying each day. That rate fell to about 52 COVID-19 deaths per day in June.
Neal Earley reported from Springfield, Stefano Esposito from Chicago.