May 14, 2020

Pritzker’s geographical grouping in COVID-19 fight rankles many officials.

[Chicago Tribune]

‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are not Cook County.’

Opposition to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus shutdown has intensified across parts of the suburbs and beyond, as elected officials try to sever their fates from that of Chicago and Cook County.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during the daily news briefing regarding the coronavirus pandemic on May 3, 2020, at the Thompson Center in Chicago.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during the daily news briefing regarding the coronavirus pandemic on May 3, 2020, at the Thompson Center in Chicago.(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune)

Officials in some towns and counties have asked to be considered separately from the big city, arguing that they have many fewer cases and deaths from COVID-19, and deserve to reopen businesses and gatherings sooner.

Grundy County Sheriff Ken Briley went a step further, saying he was refusing to enforce the governor’s executive order. He said he had neither the authority nor the desire to cite or arrest people for holding weddings or graduation parties.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are not Cook County,” Briley wrote on the sheriff’s Facebook page. “We are a rural community who believes in freedom, the rule of law, and (we) support the Constitution.”

In an interview, Briley said residents were following social distancing guidelines, but had legitimate concerns when or whether their businesses would reopen.

Briley also cited what he said was a written opinion from David Robinson of the Illinois appellate prosecutor’s office stating the governor’s authority to close businesses and church gatherings “does not appear to meet strict scrutiny.”

To try to minimize spread of the virus, Pritzker has ordered most businesses to remain shut down and has restricted most gatherings until at least May 30. His Restore Illinois plan divides the state into four regions and sets five steps to reopen each region, based on meeting benchmarks such as lower infection rates and hospitalizations.

Under Restore Illinois, Cook County is in the state’s Northeast Health Region with DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

Pritzker has said the virus does not recognize geographic boundaries. The Illinois attorney general’s office is also fighting lawsuits challenging the governor’s authority to enforce the executive order.

During his daily coronavirus update Wednesday, Pritzker warned, “There will be consequences” for breaching his orders, stating that licensing authorities may take action.

Illinois State Police will take action, and counties that reopen “in defiance” may not be reimbursed with federal funds for damages they cause.

The governor warned that more people would die without following expert advice, adding, “To the elected officials out there who are playing to the crowd that ignores science and carries symbols of hate, step up and lead.”

On Tuesday, the Grundy County board passed a resolution asking to be reclassified from the Northeast region into the North-Central Health Region, which covers more rural northwest Illinois.

Board Chairman Chris Balkema noted the county had only 62 cases and one death, and was unfairly judged together with Cook County, at more than 23,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths.

In the same vein, all 25 mayors and village presidents in McHenry County, and Democratic county board Chairman Jack Franks asked that the county be removed from the Northeast region. Instead, they recommended making the county its own region, or reclassifying it into the North-Central region. Franks said it “didn’t make any sense” to hold back the county if it meets the governor’s guidelines for a phased reopening.

They cited epidemiological data, hospital capacity and other statistics to argue their case. For example, they reported that the infection rate of the total population in McHenry was less than one-third of Cook County’s infection rate.

Previously, DuPage County mayors and managers asked the governor to allow businesses there to reopen before the end of the month. State Sen. Patrick Joyce also called on the governor to separate Kankakee County from Cook County’s region.

Similarly, Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said that on Friday he will present a plan to the governor, devised with the local chamber of commerce, on how to reopen some businesses. He and his fellow suburban mayors believe they are being unfairly “tied with what’s happening in Chicago,” he said.

He said the governor’s orders regarding social distancing and face masks should be adhered to, but that some restaurants and other businesses can operate safely in outdoor settings.

While calling for separating other areas from Cook County, suburban officials said they would continue to take steps to promote social distancing and other precautions.

O’Dekirk said one of the most lucrative sources of local revenue — Joliet’s two casinos — should remain shut down for the time being.

“We’re losing $300,000 a week in revenue with the casinos being closed, but I understand why they are,” he said. “It’s an indoor setting, lots of people crowded together and a clientele that includes a lot of seniors. I think opening casinos right now would be a mistake.”

Elmhurst Mayor Steve Morley sent Pritzker a letter Monday asking for “a more surgical approach” toward allowing businesses to reopen, arguing that his DuPage County town of 46,000 shouldn’t be lumped together with dense urban areas like Chicago.

He said small retailers in particular should be allowed to open, contending they can serve customers as safely as large stores like Costco and Target that have continued to operate during the pandemic.

In an interview Wednesday, Morley said he has yet to receive a response from Pritzker or his staff. He said he and other suburban mayors are looking for a dialogue that would fine-tune the governor’s Restore Illinois plan, especially as it concerns restaurants.

The plan allows restaurants to resume sit-down service with capacity limits only when a health region’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests is at or below 20% over a 14-day period — DuPage has been hovering right around that mark since late April — and other benchmarks have been met.

Morley said Elmhurst’s plethora of restaurants have made the city an entertainment destination over the last 10 years, and that delivery and curbside pickup are not enough to sustain them.

“I want to be able to offer options for bars and restaurants in Elmhurst sooner rather than later,” he said. “ … In the absence of an actual vaccine, I don’t think it’s realistic to close down our economy for a year or 18 months, so we have to find a way to open back up in a safe manner, and I think we can do that.”

Last week, when asked about grouping Grundy, Kankakee and Kendall counties with Cook, Pritzker said, “Remember that many of the people in outlying counties around Cook County around the collar counties travel in and out frequently sometimes for their job to those locations, and so that that is one of the reasons why those counties are where they are. It has in part to do with the radius from, you know, from the collar counties, which have significant numbers of cases.”

Kendall County Sheriff Dwight Baird took a position similar to the Grundy sheriff Briley, saying he was not encouraging anyone to break the governor’s orders, but that his office would not fine or arrest anyone for violating them.ADVERTISEMENT

Officials hundreds of miles away from Cook County also have taken action against the plan. Madison County’s Board of Health voted Tuesday to allow businesses and churches to begin reopening Wednesday.

“We want to balance the goals of public health, our economy and jobs and our constitutional rights,” Chairman Kurt Prenzler said.

Downstate television station WGEM also reported the Adams County board and city of Quincy officials passed resolutions asking the governor to modify his orders to let them open businesses.


Robert McCoppin reports on news and trends in Chicago’s suburbs, focusing especially on the legalization of marijuana. Having worked at the City News Bureau and Daily Herald before joining the Tribune in 2010, he has covered crime, the courts, flooding, and health, and has won multiple Chicago Headline Club awards.

John Keilman is a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, based in the suburbs. He writes about sports, education, health, drug abuse and many other subjects. Before joining the Tribune in 2001, he worked as a reporter in Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. Tips about strange occurrences, public outrages and inspiring people always welcome.


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