Chicago mayor drops opposition to Gov. Pritzker's order for tighter virus restrictions; shutdowns expand into 2 more counties

Jamie Munks, Dan Petrella, Gregory Pratt and John Byrne, Chicago Tribune
·11 min read

CHICAGO — A day after indicating she would try to talk Gov. J.B. Pritzker out of tightening restrictions in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday she had met with the governor and won’t try to block his order to ban indoor bar and dining service in the city.

“We had a very frank and productive conversation with the governor and his team and my team as well. We explored a lot of issues and we came out of that discussion really committed to making sure that we work hard together.

“Obviously we’ve got to work and make sure that we communicate effectively to the businesses across Chicago that are going to be effective.”

Earlier Wednesday, Pritzker had defended his decision to tighten restrictions in Chicago and most other regions of the state.

“We have now a COVID storm that’s hit the entire country. Frankly, I think there’s nobody that could turn on a television set, watch news, without seeing that it’s happening everywhere, and it’s happening across the state of Illinois. Chicago hasn’t been immune from that,” Pritzker said Wednesday at an unrelated news conference in Chicago.

“So as I announced yesterday, the same mitigations that went in place for other areas of the state that have tripped those metrics, where we’ve got people getting sick and going into the hospital … we’ve imposed the same sets of mitigations and we’ll be doing that for the city of Chicago,” he said.

The state on Wednesday said Lake and McHenry counties will become the 8th of 11 regions in Pritzker’s reopening plan where coronavirus metrics have exceeded state thresholds, leading to tighter restrictions. Indoor bar and dining service will be banned in those counties beginning Saturday after the average positivity rate exceeded 8% for three consecutive days, the governor’s office said.

While saying she would not fight Pritzker’s order, Lightfoot did not outright endorse the move, and she encouraged residents to go out and dine-in at restaurants while they still can.

“I can’t stress enough to folks, please support your local restaurants in every form. Takeout. You’ve got today and part of tomorrow for dining in,” Lightfoot said. “But they need our help now more than ever and we want to do everything we can to be supportive of them.”

Lightfoot’s recent public stances on the role restaurants and bars play in the spread of the virus have been whiplash-inducing.

Last week, the mayor and public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady held news conference to sound the alarm on rising case rates, and put the blame squarely on private get-togethers among family and friends in Chicago homes where she said people were letting their guards down and taking off their masks.

Interactions between people in bars, restaurants and gyms didn’t really seem to be driving the spike in cases, she said then.

But later last week, the mayor and her health commissioner made an about-face while announcing tougher restrictions on bar and restaurant hours of operation and liquor sales times. “Nothing against the bars, but it is a source of spread,” Arwady said then.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot was asked about her views on the virus’s spread and said, “Things are nuanced here in Chicago.”

“They’re different from what we’ve experienced across the state. Commissioner Arwady talks about this on a daily basis. The biggest challenge that we’re facing in Chicago right now is people in their homes,” Lightfoot said. “We can’t stress enough, you are not safe in your home, you cannot let down your guard. Dr. Arwady and I came out last week and really encouraged people to think long and hard about who you’re inviting into your home.”

Although Lightfoot was quick to criticize Pritzker’s moves, she’s also facing pressure from bars and restaurants to ease some of her own restrictions, which are in some ways tougher than the governor’s. While the state rules dictate bar and restaurant service must end at 11 p.m., the mayor’s order liquor sales to end at 9 p.m. and for the establishments to close at 10 p.m.

Lightfoot encouraged Chicago businesses to apply for Pritzker’s $220 million business interruption grants, and repeated the boilerplate instructions on how to safeguard against the virus.

“You must wear a mask. You must social distance. You must take all the precautions that are necessary to limit the amount of people that you’re around because those are the only things that are going to get us through this until we have a vaccine. Those are the most important things. “The governor and I are 100% aligned on those issues.”

State health officials on Wednesday announced 6,110 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide, the second-highest daily cases count since the pandemic began after a count of 6,161 last Saturday. In all, there have been 389,095 known cases in Illinois.

With 51 additional fatalities also reported, the statewide death toll stands at 9,619. The statewide rolling seven-day positivity rate hit 6.7% as of Tuesday, up a full percentage point from a week earlier. It was 3.4% at the beginning of the month.

Pritzker’s administration has reimposed tougher restrictions in regions from suburban Cook County to southern Illinois when they’ve reached state-set thresholds indicating a resurgence of the coronavirus.

In the face of growing criticism, Pritzker on Wednesday defended the measures he has taken as “effective,” citing two regions where the state tightened rules and the COVID-19 test positivity rate then dropped to a level where indoor dining and bar service could resume.

Among sources of opposition were the state’s Republican legislative leaders.

House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, whose southwest suburban district is now entirely subject to the restaurant and bar restrictions, said during an online news conference Wednesday morning that he had spoken with Lightfoot earlier in the day.

“This is her economy as much as it is the governor’s,” said Durkin, who has known Lightfoot socially for years. “The restaurant owners and business owners are barely hanging on by a thread throughout the state, but especially in Chicago and the surrounding communities because they’ve lost office workers on their lunch breaks, tourists enjoying a nice evening out.”

“People who have built their businesses for decades are watching them disintegrate right before their eyes, forced into a government mandated bankruptcy.”

While some members of his caucus have filed lawsuits against Pritzker’s various executive orders, Durkin said he prefers to work with the governor and the mayor to negotiate solutions that protect businesses and the public health.

“I am not a litigious person,” said Durkin, an attorney. “My record is one of negotiation and finding compromise.”

He also called on his political rival, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, to advocate with the governor on behalf of restaurant and bar owners.

In a separate news conference Wednesday, Illinois Senate GOP Leader Bill Brady criticized Pritzker for “an absolute lack of transparency” around his orders during the pandemic, and proposed that the Senate convene a committee hearing “where the governor would present his findings, and exactly why they believe that the closure of restaurants is necessary.”

“One of the questions that we’ve asked, given literally minutes of notice that he’s going to mitigate an area, is where’s the data, where’s the transparency?” Brady said during a Zoom news conference. “How do we tell our constituents that you’re making decisions that are right when we really don’t know, because we haven’t seen a robust contact tracing program put in place in a timely fashion. And we need that information. This is, a failure, I think, in government. It’s a failure to build consensus.”

Pritzker has shown a willingness to adjust his plans in the past. His original statewide stay-at-home order, issued in March, gave way in May to a four-region reopening plan. In July, he adjusted to the current 11-region plan, a move long advocated by Republican lawmakers.

But one roadblock to negotiations may be the reluctance of Lightfoot, Republican lawmakers and the restaurant industry to accept the evidence cited by Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health to support their assertion that restaurants and bars are a signification source of coronavirus transmission.

Republican state Rep. Brad Stephens, who also is mayor of Rosemont, a suburb known for its dining and entertainment district, said contact tracing data cited by the state doesn’t definitively show where people contracted the virus. It could just as easily happen at a big-box store as at a restaurant, Stephens said.

Under state rules, masks are required at retailers but not while customers are eating or drinking in restaurants or bars.

Stephens said the Rosemont health department doesn’t have the capacity to enforce the prohibition on indoor dining and bar service.

“This is an order from the governor, and that’s something that the governor is going to have to enforce,” he said.

Like Stephens, Durkin questioned the data and science behind Pritzker’s restrictions. He pointed to contact tracing data from the DuPage County Health Department, previously cited by the Illinois Restaurant Association, that shows a small share of outbreaks in the west suburban county have been tied to restaurants and bars.

“I just went through DuPage County (data) for the month of October, and there’s not one case … that they can relate that goes back to restaurants,” Durkin said.

Chris Hoff, director of community health resources at the DuPage County Health Department, said last week that the department’s data has been widely misconstrued in arguing against restrictions on restaurants and bars.

While it’s true only a small percentage of outbreaks have been connected to specific eating and drinking establishments, only about 15% of the county’s more than 22,000 cases at the time had been tied to any specific location through contact tracing interviews with people who test positive.

“All of this information is based on those interviews with people, which means that information is only as good as the information we can get,” Hoff said, adding that the county has an ongoing campaign to encourage more people to answer the phone when tracers call.

Even when people do participate, it’s often difficult to pinpoint where they contracted the virus, he said.

“We know that the environments that promote transmission are indoor settings where there are large numbers of people who spend extended periods of time together without masks,” Hoff said. “And so bars and restaurants definitely fit the bill, along with a lot of other indoor venues.”

Hoff discouraged the public from using the outbreak data as a list of places that aren’t safe to go to.

“We should be considering the risks for transmission in every activity or decision we make,” he said.

The tighter restrictions for Chicago announced Tuesday would, in addition to ending indoor dining and bar service starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday, cap crowds at 25.

Hours after Pritzker’s order was announced, Lightfoot pushed back in an interview on PBS News Hour, saying that “our restaurant industry, our bars, our gyms, indoor spaces, if the governor’s order goes into effect, it’s really effectively shutting down a significant portion of our economy at a time when those same businesses are really hanging on by a thread, so we’re going to continue our engagement with the governor and his team.”

Before that interview, Lightfoot issued a statement that began “Communication is the key to navigating through this crisis.”

Pritzker’s office acknowledged he had not spoken with the mayor before issuing his order on Tuesday, and said in a statement “The governor and mayor were supposed to speak on Monday, but the mayor didn’t call the governor. Staff were briefed on the metrics triggering mitigations.”

Pritzker on Wednesday publicly described the two as having a “good relationship,” and said they communicate regularly.

“We speak regularly, and I think that we’re both dedicated to the same thing, which is we want to keep people safe and healthy, and we want to keep the economy going while this virus is ravaging so many people,” Pritzker said. “And so, everything is a balance here, but I set out metrics for each region in the state, they’re the same across the board.”

The only regions where the state has not yet introduced firmer rules are the three central Illinois regions, though those areas have all had climbing positivity rates, too, and the west-central Illinois region that includes Springfield could be the next to see the state close indoor dining and bar service.

That region reached a positivity rate at or above 8% for a second consecutive day. If its rate holds at that level for one more day or rises, it would trigger the stricter measures in Pritzker’s reopening plan, and the governor could announce new restrictions for that region as early as Thursday.

The east-central region that includes Champaign-Urbana also reached the 8% threshold on Wednesday, when the saliva tests from the University of Illinois flagship are removed from the regional data.

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