State Sen. Paul Schimpf is calling on Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to loosen his stay-at-home order and give county health officials the power to reopen businesses, or close them, based on local circumstances concerning COVID-19.
Schimpf, R-Waterloo, and seven other Republican senators sent a letter to the governor this week that said it is “already past the time” when the governor should have unveiled a plan to reopen Illinois.
Schimpf told The Southern Illinoisan that shifting decisions to local control would allow county officials to account for the differences in how COVID-19 is affecting different parts of the state. And that may allow for more businesses to reopen in parts of Southern Illinois that have not experienced high case numbers — or crowded hospitals as a result — sooner than parts of Chicago and other large cities that have been harder hit. Schimpf said he applauds Pritzker’s early and decisive action to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but criticized what he sees as a lack of an endgame.
“To use a military analogy, I think the end of the operation — the end of the invasion — is as important as the beginning,” Schimpf said. “You look back at the example of Iraq, where we had the plan to get in but we didn't have the plan to get out. That is something that I think we need to be looking at right now.”
Asked about the letter, Pritzker indicated he was not supportive of the proposal to shift control from the state to local health officials. He said that his office will continue to rely on epidemiologists and scientists to inform policy where it concerns the stay-at-home order and its potential loosening.
“I am just as eager as all of those state senators, the president of the United States and everybody else to get everybody back to work,” he said during Wednesday’s televised news conference. “But we’ve got to do it in a fashion that really works for everybody, so that we keep customers safe, that we keep workers safe.”
On Thursday, Pritzker and six other Midwestern governors — those representing Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky — announced that they have formed a coalition to determine how to restart the economy with a phased-in approach. Pritzker said determinations about how to ease out of stay-at-home orders would be fact-based and data-driven, but it’s unclear when such an effort might begin. On Friday, Pritzker announced that schools would remain closed through the academic year. He said that decisions about the stay-at-home order, set to expire April 30, would be forthcoming.
Much as the president has proposed restarting the economy by opening up businesses first in states that have reported fewer cases of COVID-19, Schimpf indicated that such a regionalized plan could also work within the state of Illinois. Health department directors could phase in business and facility openings based on risk, he said. Schimpf added that they would also retain the power to order businesses closed again if case data indicated the potential for hospital strain. Schimpf and the senators who co-signed the letter proposed that the Illinois Hospital Association take a leading role in projecting regionalized capacity needs for ICU beds and ventilators based on reported case data.
“The critical metric is — and has always been — the capacity of our hospital system to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases that we know is coming,” Schimpf said.
Schimpf said his understanding is that most hospitals in Southern Illinois have significant capacity and low census counts as they have halted elected surgeries to make space for a rush of COVID-19 patients that they haven’t seen to date. Some hospitals have furloughed staff given the lull in patients. In their letter to Pritzker, the senators said they feel confident that county public health directors “have the ability to evaluate the threat that COVID-19 poses to our local populace.”
Angie Oathout, administrator of the Randolph County Health Department, whose region has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the state, said she prefers continuing on with a statewide approach to these decisions — at least for now. Oathout said that the case numbers at this point seem to indicate that May 1 will likely be too soon to begin reopening some of the businesses that have been forced to close. She said that the surge of cases over the last month in Randolph County, most of them traced back to one social event at a public place in mid-March, suggest that relaxing the order could result in a situation “that we would not be able to control very quickly.”
Bart Hagston, administrator of the Jackson County Health Department, said he would need more information about how Schimpf’s proposal would affect local agencies like his before determining if it is feasible. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea,” Hagston said. “I’m just saying there’s a lot to consider in choosing who has the ability to make those decisions at a sub-state level. That’s certainly a lot to put on one health department administrator’s plate.” Hagston said that if control was shifted to local health officials, he would create an advisory panel to advise him on how to go about it.
Heather Goines-Evans, a vice president of Marion-based Priority Staffing Group, which helps match businesses with people looking for work, said she believes a regionalized approach makes sense. She suggested that businesses deemed nonessential by the governor’s stay-at-home order submit action plans implementing steps they could take to safely reopen. For example, she said, a hair salon could stagger appointments and have stylists alternate the days they work, and gyms could have sign-up times that limit the number of people in their facilities at once. Goines-Evans said many businesses in Southern Illinois are small and operate on thin margins. She said the devastating economic losses a continued shutdown could impose on the region should be taken into consideration, especially in areas where COVID-19 cases are still relatively low.
Schimpf said he would like to see these changes take place beginning in early May, so that local officials could begin working with businesses in their respective counties to ease back into operation.
Pritzker said he understands that there are differences between living in rural and urban communities, but does not believe those differences are significant in terms of how the stay-at-home order should apply.
“The problem is that, you know, a restaurant in a rural community has the same ability to spread COVID-19 as a restaurant in an urban community,” he said in response to a question from The Southern about Schimpf’s proposal. “So it’s really, it’s a challenge to identify the things that are that much different.”
Pritzker said the state has made some minor adjustments, such as by deeming all agricultural business essential. “We are thinking about how to make differences between urban and rural communities, recognizing those differences and letting as many people work as possible without endangering people’s lives.”
COVID-19 numbers in Southern Illinois
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI
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