CAPITOL RECAP: Legislative Leaders Cancel Fall Session as Pandemic Worsens

Nov 14, 2020

The fall veto session of the Illinois General Assembly that was scheduled to begin next week has been canceled amid a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, Democratic leaders announced this week, prompting Republicans to question the motives behind that decision.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon, both Democrats, said in a joint statement Monday that the decision was made out of concern for the safety of lawmakers, staff, their families and the general public, although they left open the possibility that it could be rescheduled if public health conditions improve.

Lawmakers typically hold a brief session in the fall to deal with any legislation from the regular session that was vetoed by the governor. This year’s session was scheduled to run Nov. 17-19 and Dec. 1-3.

This year, however, there were no vetoes to deal with, largely because the regular session was severely shortened due to the pandemic, which reached its initial peak in April and early May. The House and Senate held a brief, four-day special session in late May, under strict masking and social distancing requirements, after it appeared the pandemic was subsiding.

Since early October, however, cases throughout the state have been rising sharply to levels exceeding those of the early pandemic phase, particularly in Region 3 of central Illinois, which includes the capital city. As of Nov. 7, the most recent data available, the rolling seven-day average test positivity rate in Region 3 stood at 15.2 percent and had risen in eight of the previous 10 days.

Even though there were no pressing veto issues to deal with, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus had hoped to use the veto session to advance its agenda of racial justice and equity reforms across a wide range of issues – an agenda that both Harmon and Madigan said they would support.

But Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, the Senate Majority Leader and chair of the ILBC, said those issues would have to wait until it is safe for the General Assembly to convene.

The 101st General Assembly officially comes to an end on Jan. 12, the day before the next session begins and newly-elected and reelected lawmakers are sworn into office. If the committee does not conclude its work before then, Republicans will have to petition again to form a new committee in the next General Assembly.

Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, who had hoped to use the veto session to get legislative approval for significant budget cuts in the wake of the failure of his proposed graduated income tax amendment on Election Day, also expressed disappointment over the cancellation.

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STATE SAYS STAY HOME: Illinois residents are being urged to stay at home as much as possible for at least the next three weeks as the second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks continues to sweep across the state.

The latest advisory from the Illinois Department of Public Health does not represent a renewal of the stay-at-home order that was in effect this spring, but Gov. JB Pritzker warned Thursday that if current trends continue, stricter mitigation orders could be in store.

“With many community leaders choosing not to listen to the doctors, we are left with not many tools left in our toolbox to fight this,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Chicago. “The numbers don’t lie. If things don’t take a turn in the coming days, we will quickly reach the point when some form of a mandatory stay-at-home order is all that will be left.”

The latest guidelines urge all Illinois residents to stay at home as much as possible, leaving home only for work or school if they are not working or learning remotely, grocery shopping, visiting a doctor or getting a COVID-19 test.

He also said the state is increasing its testing capacity at the most-visited testing sites in the state – Aurora, Arlington Heights and Harwood Heights. A full list of available testing sites statewide can be found at the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website, http://dph.illinois.gov/testing.

Earlier Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a 30-day stay-at-home “advisory” for residents of that city, where the rolling seven-day average test positivity rate hit 13.9 percent on Monday, Nov. 9.

Both Chicago’s and the state’s advisories extend through the upcoming Thanksgiving Day weekend, and public health officials strongly urged people to avoid any type of gathering outside of their own households.

“With the rising prevalence of this virus, attending even the smallest gathering that mixes households or traveling to surrounding areas, that increases the risk of further spread of this virus,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said during the briefing. “Again, our goal is to reduce transmission. It’s always been our goal, but especially as we head into the holidays so that businesses, so that schools, so that our veterans’ homes can be safe.”

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COVID-19 UPDATE: As of late Wednesday, Nov. 11, there were 5,258 people reported hospitalized for COVID-19 in Illinois, an increase of more than 200 from the day before. That included 956 people in intensive care units and 438 patients on ventilators.

Over the previous 24 hours, IDPH reported 12,702 newly confirmed or probable cases of the disease out of 100,617 tests performed, for a single-day positivity rate of 12.6 percent. The preliminary seven-day rolling average case positivity rate was reported at 12.6 percent.

Meanwhile, Pritzker also used some of the strongest language yet in talking about local elected officials who have so far refused to enforce the state’s mitigation orders aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.

“To the elected officials who have chosen to disregard public health guidance, those who have stood up at press conferences to question the data and fuel conspiracy theories, those who have taken their absurd crusade to the courts and lost nearly every single time, those who have flat-out told the businesses in their communities to ignore what their local and state public health departments and experts, some of the best in the nation, are telling them, what is it going to take to get you to be part of the solution?” Pritzker said.

“There may be a vaccine on the way in just a few months, but a lot of lives can be saved before that happens,” he added. “And when this is over, there will be an accounting by your constituents of who worked to keep the public safe and who just ignored the science.”

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VETERANS HOME OUTBREAK: Republicans on the Illinois House Veterans’ Affairs Committee called for a hearing this week to investigate a COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home where at least seven residents have died after testing positive for the virus.

In a letter to the House’s committee chairwoman Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, the Repbulican House committee members asked to hold hearings to “quickly investigate how and why this most recent outbreak occurred and what steps are being taken by the Pritzker administration to stop the spread of COVID-19 at all state-run veterans’ homes and health care facilities.”

A total of 81 residents and 88 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility as of Thursday. The LaSalle facility can provide care for up to 184 veterans, according to the state’s website, and the facility currently has 121 residents and 230 active employees.

Kifowit said she spoke to an Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs official on Wednesday about the recent outbreak and steps being taken to address it.

“I really think that it's simply unacceptable,” Kifowit said in a phone interview. “I did have an extensive conversation with IDVA about the contact tracing and and evaluating what happened, increasing cleaning and about avenues to improve air quality. So, it was a good conversation.”

Kitfowit said she is in talks with Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, about holding a virtual subject matter hearing on the outbreak in LaSalle. While the Senate has procedures in place for holding hearings virtually, the House does not.

In a Nov. 11 letter to residents and staff of the LaSalle home, IDVA Administrator Angela Mehlbrech wrote that the facility has been following recommendations from state and local health officials.

“This includes continuing our health screenings of staff and residents, maintaining social distancing practices, wearing face coverings, using gloves and gowns when indicated, and intensified cleaning and disinfection protocols,” Mehlbrech wrote.

According to IDVA, the residents who tested positive are being isolated in the LaSalle facility, which has suspended all visitations since the outbreak began.

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VACCINE NEWS: On Monday, Nov. 9, Pfizer announced preliminary results that showed 90 percent effectiveness for a COVID-19 vaccine, although more research is still needed on long-term effects, among other aspects of the vaccine.

Gov. JB Pritzker addressed the developments in his COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Nov. 10.

“There are more trials ahead to determine if there are safety concerns, if the vaccine offers protection to those with prior COVID-19 exposure, if it protects against severe COVID-19, and if its effects on human immunity lasts an appropriate amount of time,” Pritzker said.

The vaccine still must gain approval from the U.S. food and Drug administration, a process that will take an unknown amount of time, but has often taken several years for other vaccines.

Pritzker said the state stands ready “to build the appropriate logistics chain to distribute vaccines to our state's residents,” which includes storage of the vaccine at colder than 100 degrees below zero. In October, the state laid out its vaccine plan which would prioritize frontline workers and at-risk populations for the first batch of vaccines which would be expected to arrive in limited supply.

“Whatever the vaccine that comes we're going to build the capability to deliver that vaccine to the people of Illinois,” he said, noting “we will need a lot of help from the federal government.”

In the meantime, the governor said the state continued to look at ways to prevent the virus from spreading, emphasizing social distancing, masking and staying home.

“As I said last week and yesterday, we're monitoring the numbers closely and additional statewide action is possible,” he said. “It's critical to remember that nothing makes a bigger difference in this pandemic than when a community decides to protect your own by wearing masks, by avoiding gatherings, by temporarily closing high-risk, high-exposure businesses, until we get to a place where it's safer to open again.”

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REPLACEMENT JUSTICE: The highest court in Illinois appointed a new member to its bench on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Justice Robert L. Carter, 74, will join the Illinois Supreme Court, effective Dec. 8, according to a news release from the Illinois Supreme Court. Carter will take the seat of Justice Thomas Kilbride, who failed to win at least 60 percent of the vote in his retention election last week. Kilbride’s term is set to end on Dec. 6.

The Illinois Supreme Court voted unanimously to approve Carter’s appointment but Kilbride did not participate in the vote, according to the news release.

Carter, who was first elected as a Democrat, will serve until a new justice is elected in November 2022. In the news release, Carter wrote he would not seek to remain on the court when his two-year appointment ends.

“I am humbled by the confidence and trust the Court has placed in me as it is the honor and privilege of a lifetime to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court,” Justice Carter said. “It is a place where I first started my career as a law clerk to Justice Howard Ryan and it is where I will retire after this two-year appointment as I won’t seek to run for this seat in 2022.”

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TEACHER STANDARDS: The Illinois State Board of Education is considering a set of new standards for teachers and administrators that are aimed at making them more sensitive to students of different cultures and backgrounds, but the proposal is sparking controversy among some religious conservatives.

The “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading” standards would amend current standards that apply to all teachers and administrators by adding a host of new requirements meant to ensure they understand how certain population groups have been marginalized in society and encourage them to adapt their teaching methods to be more inclusive of students with diverse cultures, family backgrounds, languages, sexual identity and orientation.

“Every student deserves to feel welcome, included, and accepted at school and to see their cultural identity affirmed and represented in the curriculum,” state board spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said in a statement about the proposed standards. “This feeling of belonging is critical to improving academic and behavioral outcomes for Illinois’ students.”

But the proposed rules have run into opposition from the Peoria-based Illinois Pro-Family Alliance, a group that regularly lobbies at the Capitol to advocate for what it calls “biblical principles from the word of God.”

That group argues that the proposed standards are unconstitutionally vague, that they amount to a form of “compelled speech,” and that they infringe on the religious freedoms of individuals who adhere to what the group calls “traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality.”

Specifically, they point to language in the proposed standards that call on educators to, “Embrace and encourage progressive viewpoints and perspectives that leverage asset thinking toward traditionally marginalized populations,” as well as to “understand and value the notion … that there is not one ‘correct’ way of doing or understanding something, and that what is seen as ‘correct’ is most often based on our lived experiences.”

ISBE spokeswoman Matthews, however, “Culturally responsive practices are especially important in better supporting Illinois’ LGBTQ+ youth, who disproportionately experience bullying and are more likely to attempt suicide.”

ISBE is scheduled to act on the standards at its Dec. 16 meeting. If the board approves them, the new rules would be published a second time, starting another 45-day period during which the proposed standards would be reviewed by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR.

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MORE MITIGATIONS: Gov. JB Pritzker announced Monday, Nov. 9, that three more regions of the state will be placed under even stricter COVID-19 restrictions starting Wednesday, Nov. 11, as the state’s rates of infections and hospitalizations continue to climb.

“The virus is winning the war right now,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Chicago.

Ten of the state’s 11 regions are under Tier 1 mitigations, which include the closing of bars and restaurants to indoor service and limiting the size of public gatherings to 25 or fewer, among other measures.

Only Region 1, which includes northwest Illinois, is under Tier 2 mitigations. Restrictions under Tier 2 include limiting public gatherings to 10 or fewer people and limiting outdoor seating at bars and restaurants to six or fewer people at a single table.

Starting Wednesday, Pritzker said, Region 5, in southern Illinois, Region 7, which includes the south Chicago suburbs in Will and Kankakee counties, and Region 8, which includes the western suburbs in DuPage and Kane counties, will join Region 1 in those stricter mitigation measures.

Pritzker said the latest actions are being taken because of rising test positivity rates in each of the regions. In Region 5, according to the most recent data on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website, the seven-day rolling average positivity rate stood at 11.5 percent on Saturday, Nov. 6, while Region 7 posted a 16.4 percent rate and Region 8 stood at 13.7 percent.

Each of those regions has been under Tier 1 mitigations for more than two weeks. Region 5 was placed under those restrictions Oct. 22, while Regions 7 and 8 followed on Oct. 23.

But those measures so far have failed to bring down the rate of infections in those areas, and Pritzker put the responsibility for that on local officials.

“Some elected leaders are allowing this continued rise in positivity to balloon out of control while taking no action,” he said. “These mayors and city councils and county boards and state's attorneys need to take some responsibility for keeping their constituents safe. I promise them that responsibility pales in comparison to what could come when the hospitals in your area are filling up and there aren't enough nurses or doctors to save their constituents’ lives.”

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CONTACT TRACING: Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration unveiled a new central location for COVID-19 contact tracing data on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website Friday, Nov. 6.

While the data contain outbreak and exposure information, the location of an outbreak is more difficult to identify than the location of an exposure, according to the governor’s office. New data will be released every Friday.

In the data released Friday, an outbreak is defined as five or more cases that are linked to a specific setting during a 14-day period. Those cases must be from different households with no known links to other potential sources.

Exposure data shows where individuals have visited in the 14 days prior to a diagnosis. The locations are places where exposure may have – not definitely have – occurred.

Per the data, “other” was the most frequent category, as it was a term encompassing such exposures as hair salons, funeral homes and warehouses. That category was cited by 11.6 percent of those contacted, or 4,179 people.

Directly Behind that was restaurants and bars with 3,877, school with 3,794, workplace other than an office at 3,693, a hospital or clinic at 3,106, business or retail at 3,080, an office setting at 2,049, and private homes at 1,301. Grocery stores accounted for 1,243 exposures and colleges 1,085.

Individual cases can show up in multiple categories if a person has visited multiple locations.

As for outbreaks, Pritzker said data show “a pattern of formal group gatherings making up the majority of our confirmed outbreaks.”

Only 10 of 5,478 schools have currently reported COVID-19 outbreaks, he said, noting local health departments will be the best source of information for school data.

Pritzker and IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Illinoisans should answer the phone when contact tracers call, and no private information will be shared for the person who tested positive. Those getting COVID-19 tests should also leave accurate phone numbers.

“So please if you get that call from IL, Illinois COVID Help, please answer the phone and answer the questions,” Ezike said.

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RESTAURANT'S LAWSUIT: An appeals court has handed down a favorable ruling to Gov. JB Pritzker in a legal challenge to his administration’s restrictions on bars and restaurants to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The 2nd District Appellate Court overruled a Kane County judge’s decision to temporarily block Pritzker’s indoor dining ban from taking effect at the FoxFire Restaurant in Geneva.

The state court on Friday, Nov. 6, decided that Pritzker has the power under state law to issue successive disaster proclamations. Representatives of the restaurant said they would appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.

However, the appellate court’s order was issued under Supreme Court Rule 23 — which means the order cannot be cited as precedent in other cases, with limited exceptions, and applies only to this case.

The court dissolved the temporary restraining order and sent the case back to Kane County for “further proceedings consistent with this decision.”

FoxFire filed a lawsuit in response to restrictions imposed last month in Region 8, which includes Kane and DuPage counties. Those restrictions, referred to as Tier 1 mitigations, include banning indoor service at bars and restaurants, and limiting capacity of gatherings to the lesser of 25 people or 25 percent of maximum occupancy.

Kane County Judge Kevin T. Busch’s now over-ruled Oct. 26 decision to grant a temporary restraining order allowed the FoxFire Restaurant to ignore those restrictions.

On Monday, Nov. 9, Pritzker announced that Region 8 will face Tier 2 mitigations, beginning on Wednesday, Nov. 11, as a result of the area’s worsening COVID-19 test positivity rate over the past two weeks. Tier 2 mitigations impose a gathering cap of 10 individuals, rather than 25, and table caps of six rather than 10, when eating out.

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LAW ENFORCEMENT DECERTIFICATION: Lawmakers, in tandem with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, are looking to bolster the state’s system of certifying and decertifying law enforcement professionals.

At a joint hearing of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee and Special Committee on Public Safety Tuesday Raoul testified to lawmakers that the current metric for decertifying members of law enforcement leaves open too much room for misconduct, especially compared to the licensing and certification systems for other states.

Under current Illinois law, an officer must be convicted of a felony, a “decertifiable misdemeanor” such as criminal sex abuse, or commit perjury in a murder trial to be decertified.

Raoul said his office has been engaged in a working group since July to discuss how to properly enhance the state’s certification statutes.

“Through all these conversations, there were three overarching themes for enhancement,” Raoul said. “Ensuring uniformity across the state, increasing professionalism in law enforcement and increasing transparency.”

Under the current system, Raoul said, different local jurisdictions and departments in the state can differ dramatically in how they deal with officer misconduct.

The attorney general used Florida and Georgia as examples of robust decertification standards. Between 2009 and 2014, according to an Associated Press investigation, 2,125 officers in Florida and 2,800 officers in Georgia were decertified, many due to violations of moral clauses that included sexual misconduct on duty. In the same time period, Illinois decertified just 64 officers.

Raoul said he’s not “fishing to decertify officers,” but he and top law enforcement officials have concluded there is a need to broaden the range of offenses that can lead to decertification. Raoul said some sort of moral clause for “conduct unbecoming of an officer” should exist for offenses that do not rise to the level of prosecution but are concerning enough that an officer's continued employment would pose a threat to the community and undermine trust and professionalism in law enforcement.

“Excessive use of force; dishonesty in reporting, investigating or charging crimes; intentionally tampering with body or dashcams, things of that nature,” Raoul said.

Jim Black, Crystal Lake Police Chief and ILACP President, said police chiefs and their departments’ rank-and-file officers have supported the use of body cameras, de-escalation training, stricter use of force requirements and other police reforms, but he advised caution when it comes to licensing standards.

He stressed that law enforcement should remain involved in the process of creating new standards to prevent overreach and unintended consequences.

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HEALTH CARE POLICY: State legislators heard testimony from health care experts Monday, Nov. 9, on policies the state could pursue to address racial disparities in health outcomes and access.

That testimony was given during a joint hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services and Public Health committees prompted by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which has highlighted health care disparities in the past.

Legislators, in Monday’s hearing and in past hearings, have referenced significantly higher maternal mortality rates, higher infant mortality rates, and higher rates of COVID-19 positivity and COVID-related deaths among Blacks and Latinos, in Illinois and nationwide, compared to their white counterparts.

According to Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute, a necessary component of good policy to address existing disparities is good data.

In her testimony before the joint hearing, Bassler said the state needed to collect better data in order to use public funds strategically. Otherwise, much-needed public funds could be inadequately disbursed, treating symptoms of disparities but not addressing root causes to actually address them.

“Traditional public health data on births, causes of deaths and certain diseases collected by existing methods don't do enough to help communities, local government and the state understand local health concerns and community and social factors associated with health,” she said. “Nor do they help identify policies and interventions that address health inequities.”

In Chicago, the Chicago Department of Health conducts an annual survey of city residents to get health care data at a neighborhood level in order to have a better understanding of how to use municipal funds in different areas.

Bassler suggests lawmakers fund an annual statewide “Healthy Illinois” survey in the same model, broken down by ZIP code, which would extract information from residents on a wide range of topics such as access to health services, levels of civic engagement, childhood experiences, chronic health conditions, diet and financial security.

Drs. Vida Henderson and Karriem Watson, who work at the University of Illinois Cancer Center, told lawmakers about the significant disparities in cancer screening for Blacks and, by extension, the high rate of mortality when it comes to lung cancer, breast cancer for women and prostate cancer for men, in comparison to their white counterparts.

The pair of doctors advised lawmakers to invest money in pipelines to invest in Black and Latino communities on both ends of health care.

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UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS: As the number of infections and hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been rising in recent weeks, new unemployment claims continued pouring in to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

During the week that ended Saturday, Nov. 7, IDES reported, 67,158 workers filed first-time unemployment claims, down roughly 9 percent from the previous week, but still more than six times the number who filed such claims during the same week a year ago.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 338,899 Illinois workers were receiving continuing unemployment benefits during the week, down about 1 percent from the previous week.

In addition, another 9,726 people filed initial claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally-funded program for gig workers, independent contractors and others who don’t normally qualify for traditional unemployment insurance.

During his briefing, however, Pritzker noted that the PUA system has been plagued by fraud nationwide, and he blamed federal officials for failing to enact adequate controls to prevent fraud when Congress established the program earlier this year.

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.