Like indefinite war, indefinite shutdown is not sustainable. The people of Illinois need the hope associated with a plan for a responsible end to the COVID-19 crisis. This plan, while not perfect, is intended as the beginning of a conversation about how we can bring our state back to normal.
I. Principles to Guide Our Actions
This plan attempts to follow the five principles described below. It cannot, however, cover all possible contingencies. Regarding circumstances not addressed in this plan, Illinois leaders should still endeavor to adhere to these principles in their decision making.
Maximize Transparency. Our elected leaders are making decisions about which liberties may be allowed and which must be curtailed based on data from experts across the public health spectrum. This includes infection rates, modeling of disease progression, medical service utilization, death rates, and more. All data that is utilized by state government to curtail civil liberties must be clearly available to the public at all times. Refusal to publicize such data undermines the trust the people have in their leaders and incentivizes them to disobey requests that are made in their best interest.
Provide Equal Treatment to Similar Entities. When safety is equivalent, treatment should be equal. It is unfair for the state to allow large retail outlets (e.g., Walmart, Target, Home Depot) or grocery stores to remain open while forcing other similar entities that sell a smaller selection of goods (e.g., clothing stores, garden centers, flower shops, furniture stores) to remain closed, even if they are able to create an equally safe environment for customers. We need to abandon the concept of “essential” and “non-essential” goods and services and instead allow any entity (government operation, business, or non-profit) to operate within equivalent approved, evidence-based safety guidelines. Every job is essential to the person who depends upon it for their livelihood. Every business is essential to the person who owns it.
Respect Constitutional Freedoms. Our rights under the United States and Illinois constitutions, while not unlimited, do not disappear during a disaster. State actions that impinge upon constitutional rights must be narrowly tailored and should be able to survive strict scrutiny review by courts. When the stay-at-home order was initiated, we knew little about how to behave in a safe manner in public. Now that we have more data, we should cease restricting freedom of movement, but tie that freedom to a requirement that people who go out and about behave in a manner that protects public health and safety.
Minimize Applied Government Power. Disaster response inherently involves short-circuiting the usual processes for decision making and the application of government power. Like a powerful tool bereft of its safety features, government force should be applied delicately and only to the extent necessary.
Avoid Partisanship. Disaster response and planning must remain as free as possible from partisanship. Leaders, operating with incomplete and changing information, will make mistakes. Personal attacks and scorched-earth criticism limit both the flow of new ideas and the ability to adjust plans already in place. Identifying solutions or ideas as either “Democrat” or “Republican” will close minds and harden positions at a time when leaders need the ability to listen and adapt. Both our federal and state pandemic responses have plenty of room for improvement. We should ruthlessly identify problem areas, but offer solutions, not blame.
II. Phased Reopening of Illinois
The stated purpose behind “flattening the curve” was not simply to save lives, but to also help manage our hospital capacity. Stabilization in the daily amount of hospitalizations under our capacity threshold will indicate that the curve has indeed flattened and we can undertake a deliberate, phased reopening of our state.
Statewide Standards, Assessed at a Regional Level, Applied by Local Governments. Medical experts have outlined numerous ways to limit the spread of COVID-19. Up to this time, Illinois has set statewide standards without regional variance. These include physical distancing requirements, the (soon to be required) wearing of masks in public, prohibitions on business activities, limitations on gatherings, and closures of state parks. Illinois is currently relying on both state resources and local governments to enforce these standards. This plan calls for a change from a statewide to a regional framework for assessment. Regions should be based upon the Illinois Department of Public Health Emergency Medical Services Region map. Local governments should be the enforcing entity for guidelines that apply on a regional level.
Initiate Reopening When Hospitalization Levels Hold Steady and Capacity Assessments Remain Positive. Although federal criteria highlights stabilized case numbers, this metric provides limited value in understanding the spread of COVID-19. Case numbers are directly impacted by the number of tests administered and the composition of the pool of test subjects. Because seriously ill individuals will go to the hospital, growth in this metric is the best indicator that the disease is still spreading. Therefore, rather than positive case identifications, reopening must be contingent upon the number of hospitalizations and the projected medical capacity of Illinois.
Continued Quarantines and Accessible Testing. As we continue to learn more about COVID-19, data appears to validate the theory that COVID-19 is more contagious than the typical flu strain. Therefore, individuals must have access to testing and the ability to self-quarantine. Illinois has successfully highlighted the importance of testing and ramped up the number of tests given daily. Illinois must continue to keep testing and quarantine housing options readily available.
Specific Phases of Low, Medium, and High-Risk Activities for Reopening. Illinois should generally follow the federal guidelines to reopen our state in phases, as suggested by the White House’s disease experts on April 16, 2020. Illinois should determine its 14-day stabilization trend by assessing the number of daily hospitalizations due to COVID-19. When daily COVID-19 hospitalizations have demonstrated a plateau or decrease for 14 days (as evaluated by IDPH region), that respective region should begin a phased reopening. Should hospitalization numbers increase to a higher level for three straight days, the Governor could order the region back to the prior Phase, as necessary. These phases include:
- Phase 0: The current situation under Governor Pritzker’s April 23, 2020 policy announcement.
- Phase 1: Allow low-risk events and activities where physical distancing guidelines issued by the state can be followed. We believe this list should include all state parks, outdoor recreation areas, all individual retail stores, hygiene activities, and dental activities unless circumstances unique to the particular event heighten its risk. Outdoor gatherings of under 50 individuals are allowed with social distancing. Outdoor religious gatherings of any size are allowed with social distancing. Medical activities, in accordance with IDPH’s memo of April 24, 2020, should continue.
- Phase 2: Allow medium risk events and activities while continuing to maximize social distancing. Gyms, restaurants, and bars may open with strict occupancy limits. Indoor gatherings of under 50 are allowed with social distancing. Outdoor gatherings of under 250 are allowed.
- Phase 3: Allow some higher-risk activities and events while minimizing time spent in crowded environments. Movie theaters, sporting events, indoor religious events, gyms and bars with moderate limits, and shopping malls may resume operation. Indoor gatherings of 250 or under are allowed. Outdoor gatherings of under 1000 are allowed.
- Phase 4: Unrestricted activities.
III. Responsibilities of the Illinois Governor and the Executive Branch
The Executive branch’s responsibilities go far beyond testing and PPE procurement. All departments must continue their basic functions while operating as remotely as possible. All departments must continue their current practice of educating the public on the availability of state resources. Furthermore, all departments should expect the adverse impact COVID-19 will place on their upcoming Illinois budgets.
Continue to Safeguard State Workers and Citizens Who Reside in State Facilities. Illinois employs thousands of workers and provides care for many thousands more. Crowding living conditions at state facilities necessitate extensive planning and restrictions. The Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services currently have moratoriums on transfers between facilities. These moratoriums should remain in place until at least Phase 2 of the reopening described above.
Continue Administration of the Social Safety Net. Illinois must continue its traditional funding of services for its vulnerable populations. Additionally, the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) must adapt to handle new types of unemployment benefits that are available for independent contractors.
Initiate or Publicize Emergency Planning for Critical Industry, High-Risk Facilities, and Mass Transit. Critical industries warrant their own set of plans to ensure that they do not falter in the face of staff shortages due to an outbreak. Likewise, high-risk facilities such as prisons or nursing homes must receive special planning beyond the social distancing guidelines given to the general public. Finally, mass transit systems represent one of the greatest vulnerabilities that contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Even though these are privately operated, Illinois must ensure that all feasible safety measures are included in a plan for mass transit systems to operate safely.
Initiate a Review of State Regulations for Necessity. The Governor has suspended and deferred countless regulations across the state. Every regulation that has been suspended or deferred should be reviewed to see if they are truly necessary, especially in an environment where business and local government may take years to recover. The Governor should submit his recommendations for the suspension, elimination, or alteration of any existing regulations to the Illinois General Assembly.
Continue to Supply Medical Infrastructure Needs (Testing, PPE, & Surge Bed Capacity). Testing is critical to identify areas where COVID-19 is spreading. Since testing reflects only a specific point in time, workers in contact with vulnerable populations should be repeatedly tested, regardless of whether they show COVID-19 symptoms. Illinois should invest in antibody testing as a means to certify workers who no longer pose a transmission threat. Going forward, Illinois must ensure that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) inventories are properly maintained and kept in greater amounts than were present at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
IV. Responsibilities of the Illinois General Assembly
The U.S. Congress has demonstrated that legislative bodies can still meet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, the Illinois General Assembly should convene before the end of May to fulfill its duties. Until the public can access the Illinois Capitol and directly petition their elected officials through town halls and other non-virtual forums, the Illinois General Assembly should limit its activity and refrain from making changes to existing policy.
Passage of FY21 Budget. It will take Illinois decades to recover from the budget impasse that occurred between 2015 and 2017. Therefore, the Illinois General Assembly must return to Springfield and pass an FY21 budget. If revenue and spending projections are unclear due to the continuing pandemic, a six-month temporary budget may be a prudent choice.
Passage of Legislation Amending the Illinois Emergency Management Act. The General Assembly should change existing law to curtail indefinite disaster declarations. The updated law should implement oversight of any declarations subsequent to the initial 30-day declaration by adding a requirement for approval by the General Assembly. If it is unsafe for the General Assembly to meet, then unanimous approval, in writing, is required from the four legislative leaders to extend the disaster declaration.
Passage of Legislation Requiring Full Transparency in Pandemic Disaster Spending. Commendably, the Illinois Comptroller’s Office already makes state COVID-19 expenditure amounts and payees available to the public on their website. The information provided does not, however, track where and by what agencies the funds are expended. Additionally, the website does not distinguish whether this includes federal pass-through money or purely state funds. The federal government already plans to give Illinois extensive COVID-19 assistance. The General Assembly should pass legislation requiring that all federal money spent on COVID-19 be available online and categorized by the amount, vendor, expending state agency, and expenditure location.
Passage of Legislation to Delay Implementation of the Minimum Wage Increase By One Year. We are not recommending a policy change—which would violate our principle of limited legislative activity. Instead, we simply suggest that the implementation of this law be delayed by one year. This delay will afford small businesses the opportunity to regain their footing before a significant increase in their payrolls occurs.