Illinois reopens after 15 months of COVID-19 restrictions

(The Center Square) – As the state prepares to fully reopen for the first time in 15 months on Friday, the governor is giving Illinoisans a pat on the back.

Starting Friday, there will be no capacity restrictions, but businesses can still require masks for unvaccinated people. There are also mask requirements for public transportation, medical facilities, correctional facilities, schools and day care centers.

On Friday, the state will eliminate all capacity limits on businesses, large-scale events, conventions, amusement parks and other venues. Mask requirements for vaccinated and non-vaccinated people continue to align with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A strong economy requires that people not only feel safe, but truly be safe, as they go about their lives as workers, neighbors, consumers, and friends – and thanks to the lifesaving power of vaccinations, that day is finally here for Illinois,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement Thursday. “I invite all Illinoisans to feel the hope and joy of this moment while also recognizing that this pandemic is still very present for the world at large … You did it, Illinois.”

“It is a very exciting time as we reach the point where businesses can operate without capacity limits and we are seeing the return of large events we’ve enjoyed in the past,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “However, it is important to remember that we are still in a world pandemic and not everyone has the protection of one of the safest and most effective vaccines ever.”

Federal regulators have yet to approve a COVID-19 vaccine for kids.

“Currently, there is not a vaccine authorized for children younger than 12 years and some adults have chosen not to be vaccinated,” Ezike said. “For these reasons, it is important for unvaccinated people to continue to wear masks while in public and to socially distance. The virus can continue to spread among unvaccinated individuals, which could lead to additional mutations and new, more virulent variants.”

Some lawmakers seek to limit governor’s power

What started as two weeks of restrictions to slow the spread lasted nearly a year-and-a-half.

Now, some want Gov. J.B. Pritzker to stop governing through disaster proclamations and executive orders with the state set to enter Phase 5 of the reopening plan he created.

After 18 gubernatorial COVID-19 disaster proclamations and dozens of executive orders, Illinois is about to enter a full reopening. That means for the first time in nearly a year and a half, conventions, concerts and other large group events can return to full capacity in Phase 5 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 reopening plan.

Michael Jacobson with the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association celebrated the long-awaited reopening.

“Many hotels, if they were suspended altogether, they didn’t have a penny of revenue for 15 months and it’s going to take years to come to make up for a year’s worth of lost revenue,” Jacobson said.

While leisure travel for families is picking back up now, Jacobson said it may take longer for trade shows and business conventions to fully return.

But, there will still be mask guidelines the governor has said will follow CDC guidance. The latest of which says fully vaccinated people can go without a mask in most situations. Masks will still be required in Illinois on public transportation, health care settings and inside schools.

Hotels will each have their own protocols for mask requirements on unvaccinated people, and many of the distancing provisions will carry over, like spacing out seating. But, he said a lot of lessons were learned.

Hundreds of millions of tax dollars from the federal and state governments are lined up for the tourism and hospitality industry to assist in recovering from the pandemic, and government orders restricting the economy.

As the first cases of COVID-19 were being reported in Illinois last year, the first orders from Pritzker in March 2020 closed restaurants to in-person service. He telegraphed what was to come on NBC that spring.

“COVID-19 is spreading because even healthy people can be walking around, giving it to other people, so we need to go on lockdown,” Pritzker said then.

There was then a ten-week stay-at-home order closing schools and other in-person businesses. That was followed by months of dialed-in capacity restrictions dictated by the governor without any check from the General Assembly.

There was a Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission that was approved during a truncated session of the state Legislature in 2020, but it stumbled with false starts. The group was disbanded by law at the end of 2020.

Lawmakers this year passed a similar group in Senate Bill 632 that will meet into 2023. The group would be tasked with monitoring “actions taken by the Office of the Governor with regard to the Restore Illinois plan and to keep members of the General Assembly informed of those actions and any need for further legislative action.”

During the session last month, state Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-St. Charles, argued against the bill and warned lawmakers against letting the executive go unchecked.

“We are operating and moving down a dangerous path if we allow governors either today or in the future to declare emergency declarations as long as they want without input from the General Assembly,” Ugaste said.

Ugaste has House Bill 843 that would amend the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act to require the governor to get legislative approval of consecutive disaster proclamations.

The last Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission had 16 meetings. State Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, said his notes indicate only three were live-streamed to the public and there wasn’t much collaboration.

“In my memory, that was the only time the governor engaged with us was to ask us whether children should be able to trick or treat,” Murphy said. “We were AWOL for 224 days in 2020 … we don’t need that commission now, we need to get back to work.”

Murphy demanded there be hearings on the millions in taxpayer costs for leasing hospitals that were rarely or never used, hearings on the failures at the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which continues to be closed to the public for more than a year, and hearings on the continued backlog of Firearm Owner’s Identification cards, among other issues.

Restaurants prepare for Phase Five

With plans to lift all COVID-19 capacity restrictions Friday, Illinois restaurants are entering another chapter.

Many didn’t survive the pandemic, while others stayed afloat with government funding while offering curbside pickup. The Illinois Restaurant Association estimated 20% of the restaurants closed permanently.

The National Restaurant Association has sent a blueprint for lawmakers to highlight ideas to accelerate the industry’s recovery. The letter was sent to the National Governors Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, and the National Council of State Legislators.

The proposals include expanding access to child care for hospitality workers because they are unable to work from home, permanently expanding outdoor dining, and protecting businesses from unforeseen tax burdens due to federal relief.

“We want to make sure state and local lawmakers are considering the tax consequences of that and making sure restaurants don’t get surprise bills,” said Mike Whatley, vice president for State Affairs and Grassroots Advocacy for the association.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, agreed. He said any type of tax increase would be a knockout blow.

“Now is the worst possible time to be considering any potential tax increases that will increase the financial burden placed on small businesses that are struggling to hang on,” Toia said.

Whatley said getting people vaccinated is key to the hospitality industry back on its feet, and likes Illinois’ effort to offer a free cocktail to vaccinated patrons.

“The only way that restaurants can return to normal, whatever that may look like, is to have every single person feel comfortable dining in a restaurant,” Whatley said. “Restaurants are about hospitality, it is about packed environments where folks can enjoy life’s happy moments together and without herd immunity and increased vaccinations, that’s not possible.”

One of the biggest obstacles facing eateries right now is a shortage of workers. The lack of qualified potential employees is being reported all over the country. About half of U.S. governors have ended the enhanced federal unemployment benefits to get people back into the workforce.

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