CAPITOL RECAP: Even During Family Gatherings, There's No Holiday from Pandemic, State Says

Oct 17, 2020

As statewide COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations continue to increase, officials on Wednesday, Oct. 14, warned Illinoisans to take precautions ahead of upcoming holiday seasons.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health director, said holiday celebrants should dine outside when possible, consider pre-plating food and having dishes served by a single person rather than serving buffet-style, and always wear masks when not eating or drinking.

Those hosting indoor gatherings should open windows and consider spacing out the gathering in multiple rooms or seating immediate family members together. The number of people going in and out of the area where food is being prepared should be limited.

“If you are sick, please, please understand that you need to stay home,” Ezike said during a news conference in Chicago. “Don't assume that your symptoms are not serious. Don't assume that they aren't COVID. Don't assume that you're not contagious. Take the better decision. And if you are sick, please stay home. We don't want to have our holidays marred by tragedy on the back end.”

Those who will be traveling for the holidays should limit exposure two weeks before travel, and travelers should consider options that allow for social distancing and should always wear face coverings.

Holiday shoppers should consider online shopping or ordering curbside pickup from their local stores.

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PRITZKER CHALLENGE: A circuit court judge in Springfield is now weighing whether to dismiss lawsuits by Republican Rep. Darren Bailey and others challenging Gov. JB Pritzker’s use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic after a Wednesday, Oct. 15 hearing.

Bailey, from Xenia, originally filed his lawsuit in April in Clay County Circuit Court, in southern Illinois, arguing that Pritzker overstepped his authority by issuing successive 30-day disaster declarations and then using the emergency powers granted him under the state’s Emergency Management Act to order the closure of certain businesses, schools and public gatherings.

He also argued that Pritzker overstepped his bounds by issuing a statewide disaster declaration when the severity of the pandemic varies widely in different parts of the state.

Bailey’s case was one of several cases filed around the state, all by Greenville attorney Thomas DeVore. Those cases were eventually consolidated into one case in Sangamon County Circuit Court.

During a hearing Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Darren Kinkead argued that all of the cases should be dismissed because, in the case of public health emergencies, the state’s Emergency Management Act gives the governor broad authority to act proactively in order to prevent the spread of a disease.

Kinkead argued that it was “legally irrelevant” whether or not there have been a large number of cases or deaths in a particular county because the statute requires only the existence of widespread exposure and a risk of substantial future harm.

DeVore, however, argued that the lawsuits should be allowed to proceed because that’s the only way the plaintiffs can conduct depositions and gather the evidence necessary to prove their case. He said it wasn’t necessary for the plaintiffs to demonstrate all the evidence needed to win their case in their initial pleadings.

As the hearing ended, Judge Raylene D. Grischow said she intends to rule within the next two or three weeks. She gave attorneys on both sides until Oct. 23 to submit proposed orders. She said she will use one of the proposals as the basis for the final order.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: More than 2,000 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Illinois as of Thursday night, Oct. 15, a high not seen since June 12.

At that time, COVID-19 hospitalizations were quickly declining after peaking at 5,037 on April 28. Now, they are on the rise after falling as low as the 1,300s in July. Intensive care bed usage is up as well, with 410 COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and 151 on ventilators as of Thursday night.

The state’s rolling seven-day average COVID-19 test positivity rate is also steeply increasing, hitting 5.1 percent for the week of Oct. 9-15, a high not seen since June 8, when that number was also on the way down. Now, it has increased for 12 straight days, jumping from 3.3 percent on Oct. 4.

IDP reported a single-day record of new cases for the second straight day Friday with 4,554 reported among 87,759 test results processed over the previous 24 hours. The high testing in part drove the high case count, but the one-day 5.2 percent positivity rate was an increase from averages in the past several weeks.

The 38 deaths reported by IDPH Friday were in a person in their 40s, four in their 50s, four in their 60s, eight in their 70s and the rest 80 or older. That brought the total death toll to 9,165 among 336,174 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, while testing output surpassed 6.6 million.

In Region 1 of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, which includes the northwest part of the state, the positivity rate increased to 10.6 percent according to the most recent data logged Tuesday, Oct. 13. Mitigations including the closure of bars and restaurants to indoor service cannot be lifted until the region is below 6.5 percent for three consecutive days.

Region 5, which includes southern Illinois and had a decreasing rate for two days, saw its rolling positivity rate increase to 7.8 percent. If it surpasses 8 percent for three straight days, it would be subject to greater state mitigations similar to those in Region 1. Those also include maximum capacity allotments of 25 people, down from 50 allowed elsewhere.

Excluding University of Illinois saliva tests, Region 6, which includes east-central Illinois, saw its positivity rate increase to 7.4 percent. Other regions ranged from 6 percent to 7.4 percent.

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FOID CARD DELAYS: Despite a temporary rule that extends the expiration dates for Firearm Owners Identification cards and concealed carry permits, many Illinois gun owners are still finding it difficult to buy weapons and ammunition.

That was one of the issues that came up Wednesday during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative body that oversees the state’s regulatory processes.

The Illinois State Police recently renewed an emergency rule first adopted in April that extends the expiration date of FOID cards and concealed carry permits by 12 months, as long as the permit holder submits a renewal application. On Sept. 3, the agency extended that rule to 18 months.

ISP, which issues firearm permits, had been struggling with a backlog of applications since long before the pandemic began. But the problem multiplied after the pandemic hit and again later amid the civil unrest that erupted following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

According to data that ISP provided in an email, 147,862 FOID card applications were received during the first four months of the disaster declaration, March through June. That was more than double the number received in the prior four-month period.

From July through September, ISP said it received 135,798 applications for new or renewed FOID cards.

There are currently more than 142,000 FOID card applications pending and more than 26,000 applications pending for concealed carry licenses.

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said in an interview that he receives complaints from gun owners who are frustrated about the delays on a daily basis.

Under state law, FOID cards are supposed to be issued or denied within 30 days of an application, but the backlog has caused most applicants to wait for several months. Pearson said there are currently 12 lawsuits pending in various courts arguing the delays amount to a violation of individuals’ constitutional right to bear arms.

Pearson confirmed that despite the emergency rule extending the expiration dates, many gun dealers still will not sell firearms to anyone who does not have a current, valid FOID card.

An ISP spokesperson said in an email that the agency has been in the process of hiring more analysts to process applications since early this year, but the process includes a minimum six-month training program.

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ENERGY LEGISLATION: Lawmakers and renewable energy stakeholders are calling for legislative action on measures meant to bring funding to and diversify the clean energy industry in the state.

Members of a coalition backing the Path to 100 energy legislation made the calls in a virtual news conference Wednesday, Oct. 15. Their legislation aims to raise a rate cap on energy bills from about 2 to 4 percent to provide funding for renewable projects, avoiding what Rep. Will Davis called the “solar cliff.”

The diversity initiatives laid out Wednesday include funding workforce development programs for the industry through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and creating diversity hiring and contracting mandates for companies procuring Renewable Energy Credits through the Illinois Power Agency, among other actions. The coalition said it also aims to expand access to community solar initiatives and the Solar for All Program for low-income Illinoisans.

The principles are meant to go hand in hand with the Path to 100 legislation, which is included in House Bill 2966 and Senate Bill 1781.

Energy legislation stalled during last year’s legislative session as stakeholders and lawmakers expected to address the matter in 2020, but COVID-19 and an ongoing bribery scandal involving the state’s largest utility, Commonwealth Edison, halted the talks and the bills were not heard during the abbreviated May legislative session.

But Gov. JB Pritzker laid out eight principles for energy legislation which tie ethics and transparency initiatives into the energy mix as well in an effort to separate negotiations from the ongoing scandal.

Davis said the measures backed by Path to 100 coalition members fall in line with the governor’s goals.

In recent weeks, the governor’s administration, legislators and stakeholders have been meeting in working groups to discuss a path forward on energy reforms, and those discussions are ongoing.

The Path to 100 backers believe their bill can stand alone as a way to create funding for renewable projects outside of other major energy reforms. Davis said he is hopeful that a bill can pass in the fall veto session, scheduled for Nov. 17-19 and Dec. 1-3.

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Credit Illinois Department of Public Health

COUNTIES AT WARNING LEVEL: As of Friday, Oct. 16, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported that 34 of the state’s 102 counties were at a warning level for COVID-19 spread, an increase of eight from a week ago. Seventeen of those counties are on the state’s border.

The counties at a warning level include Adams, Alexander, Boone, Cass, Christian, Clay, Clinton, Crawford, DeKalb, DeWitt, Jasper, Jefferson, Jo Daviess, Johnson, Kane, Lee, Macon, McDonough, McHenry Mercer, Monroe, Pike, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline, Stephenson, Union, Vermilion, Warren, Washington, Wayne, Whiteside, Will and Winnebago.

IDPH issues a warning when a county crosses certain targets for two or more risk indicators that measure the amount of COVID-19 increase. Those include things such as the daily number of new cases per 100,000 population, the county’s test positivity rate and new hospital admissions for COVID-19.

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CENSUS COUNT, SPENDING: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration could shorten the U.S. Census count on Tuesday, just hours after the Illinois government committed an additional $1 million to outreach.

The Trump administration originally tried to shorten the end date of the census to Sept. 30, but federal courts mandated the administration keep the count going until Oct. 31, the extended deadline originally set by the federal government in response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, following the 7-1 SCOTUS ruling, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it was ending the count at 5 a.m. Friday in Illinois.

The Census Bureau will continue to accept self-responses from Illinoisans online at My2020Census.gov through that 5 a.m. deadline and will accept phone responses and paper forms postmarked by Oct. 15.

Gov. JB Pritzker tweeted about the ruling shortly after its announcement, calling the decision “wrong” and saying it could lead to “an undercount in communities that can least afford it, perpetuating generations of disinvestment that make our nation weaker.”

Illinois’ self-response rate sits at 71.2 percent as of Tuesday, the 7th highest in the nation, and the state is the most populous in the top 10 for self-response. In 2010, the state’s self-response rate was 70.5 percent.

In a release distributed Tuesday before the SCOTUS ruling, the Pritzker administration announced it had spent an additional $1 million through the Illinois Department of Human Services for “census-related media outreach in communities of color across the state” to encourage more households to fill out self-response forms for the census.

According to that release, “many underserved and marginalized neighborhoods and cities are hovering between a 40-50 percent participation rate,” which puts hundreds of millions of federal dollars at stake over the next 10 years. Funds that could go toward programs to assist those traditionally underserved and marginalized communities in Illinois that aren’t getting counted.

While the $1 million expenditure was meant to propel outreach for the last two weeks, IDHS officials said operations to conduct outreach over the next two days are underway and that all money has already been spent.

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EARLY VOTING: With just three weeks remaining before the Nov. 3 general election, more than 660,000 voters in Illinois have already cast ballots either through mail-in or early in-person voting, shattering previous records for advance voting, according to state election officials.

The Illinois State Board of Elections posted to its website Tuesday, Oct. 13, that 660,500 advance ballots had already been received by various local voting jurisdictions.

That included 482,848 mail ballots that had either been delivered to election authorities or deposited in a drop box. That’s 22.4 percent of the more than 2.15 million mail ballots that have been requested so far.

In addition, 175,965 registered voters had cast ballots at in-person voting locations – roughly double the number of early in-person votes cast at the same point in the 2016 election cycle – and another 1,687 “grace period” voters had registered to vote and voted in-person simultaneously.

“Grace period” voting in Illinois begins 27 days before an election, which started on Oct. 7 this year. During that period, voters may no longer register to vote by mail but they may register in person and vote at an early voting location. Online voter registration is available through Oct. 18.

There were still another 1.67 million mail ballots as of Tuesday that had been sent out to voters but not yet returned, ISBE said.

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PRISON REFORM: The state Senate Criminal law Committee and Special Committee on Public Safety held a joint hearing Tuesday, Oct. 13, calling on experts to provide evidence-based recommendations for enhancing public safety and making prisons more equitable and humane.

“Over 4 million Illinoisans have criminal records that prevent them from accessing jobs, housing, public benefits and other economic opportunities,” Victor Dickson, president of the Safer Foundation, said in virtual testimony. “The most severe discrimination experienced by Black and brown people in our state with lifelong negative consequences comes from involvement in our criminal justice system.”

The Safer Foundation provides prerelease and post-release services for individuals in the prison system to successfully reenter society.

Dickson said Black Illinoisans and other minority groups are more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and individuals who have been incarcerated are more likely to experience negative socioeconomic effects.

Those individuals are more likely to be homeless both before and after incarceration, have substance abuse disorders and higher chances of overdose, have mental health issues stemming from trauma and suffer from chronic health diseases. They are also more likely to suffer poverty, unemployment, crime and violence.

“So as you consider social justice reforms and social equity, please keep in mind that the inequities that exist in our state are harshest for people with records,” he said.

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UNEMPLOYMENT UPDATE: The pandemic and associated restrictions continue to wreak havoc on the state and national economy, as the Illinois Department of Employment Security reported that 47,528 Illinoisans filed first-time unemployment claims for the week ending Oct. 10, an increase of 31 percent from the previous week. That was accompanied by an 8 percent decrease in continued unemployment claims, which hit 447,060 for the week.

Nationally, there were 898,000 new unemployment claims for the week, an increase of 53,000 or 6 percent from the previous week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

IDES reported Friday that the state had a 10.2 percent unemployment rate in September. That was higher than the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent for the month, and nearly triple the 3.7 percent rate the state saw in September one year ago.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.