The Spin: Pritzker to follow CDC’s lead on easing mask guidelines | Chicago looking at ‘Vax Pass’ | Governor signs into law bill aimed at closing racial disparities in health care

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Lisa Donovan, Chicago Tribune
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The nation’s top public health agency announced today that those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can opt not to wear masks at small, outdoor gatherings, but officials are still recommending a face covering at larger events outside such as baseball games or concerts.

During a televised news conference, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the move “a step back to the normalcy of before” — at least for the fully vaccinated.

As a result, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will revise his statewide mask mandate to align with new federal guidelines, his office said later in the day. Chicago public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady touted the CDC’s new guidelines as “exciting” while noting the caveats to the eased mask-wearing guidelines.

Arwady gave few details but said she expects the city to debut a form of a vaccination passport requirement next month for access to events geared toward young adults. It will be dubbed “Vax Pass” and roll out in May, Arwady said, and encourage vaccination particularly in younger people in exchange for attendance at concerts or other events, the Tribune’s Alice Yin reports.

Meantime, Pritzker signed into law this morning a wide-ranging bill aimed at addressing racial disparities in the health care system that have been especially obvious during an ongoing pandemic, my colleague Dan Petrella writes. That includes hitting the pause button on all hospital closures until the pandemic has ended, a provision prompted by plans to shutdown Mercy Hospital, a safety-net medical facility in Chicago’s Bronzeville community.

And Martin Ozinga III, chairman of well-known Mokena-based ready-mix concrete company, has died, the Daily Southtown’s Mike Nolan reports. One of his six sons, Tim Ozinga, was sworn in earlier this year as the state representative for the 37th House District; he also serves as executive vice president and a co-owner of the family business.

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Pritzker to follow in CDC’s footsteps, ease guidelines on mask-wearing

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines Tuesday on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers,” The Associated Press writes.

In remarks later in the day, President Biden said “we’ve made stunning progress” in the COVID-19 fight. “The bottom line is ... (i)f you’re vaccinated you can do more things, more safely — both outdoors as well as indoors,” the president told reporters.

Tucked into the various messages about the CDC’s relaxed guidelines is this: If you haven’t been inoculated, go do it now so you, too, can enjoy a bit of freedom.

Now comes word that Gov. Pritzker will update the state’s rules, which would allow full vaccinated people to drop outdoor masks in many settings, the Tribune’s Jenny Whidden, Alice Yin and Dan Petrella report.

Next up, a vax passport in Chicago: In the midst of all the mask news, The Tribune’s Alice Yin also reports that “Chicago’s top public health official Tuesday said she expects the city to debut a form of a vaccination passport requirement next month for access to events geared toward young adults.” Full story here.

All of this is happening as Illinois sees a substantial drop in daily COVID-19 vaccinations and Pritzker said supply will soon exceed demand,” the Tribune’s Dan Petrella and Jenny Whidden write.

As my colleagues note here, the decline comes as Chicago-area mass vaccination sites have begun offering shots to walk-ins — a drastic shift from just a few weeks ago when it was still a grueling ordeal for many people to find an appointment.

While easier access to the vaccine is welcome news, it could also be cause for concern, as a little less than 30% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated — a long way from roughly 80% some experts estimate is needed to reach herd immunity. More here.

Also: NIH grant to help Northwestern spinoff produce 1 million COVID-19 tests per month, my Tribune colleagues report.

Illinois Senate approves proposal to not punish school districts financially for COVID-related attendance drops, Steve Sadin writes for the Lake County News-Sun.

Restaurants, bars and food trucks can get up to $10 million in federal grants to offset pandemic-related losses, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

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Pritzker signs bill that seeks to address racial disparities in health care

The health care measure Pritzker signed into law this morning is part of a larger package of Illinois Legislative Black Caucus-backed proposals aimed at addressing criminal justice and policing, economic inequality and education, Petrella reports. Full story here.

“The Black Caucus agenda was a response to the calls for racial justice that followed last summer’s murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer,” Petrella writes.

The coronavirus pandemic helped bring to the fore the lack of access to health care in Black communities and the disparate outcomes for people who live in those neighborhoods, said Chicago state Sen. Mattie Hunter, a Democrat who sponsored the bill in that chamber.

At the White House: President Biden signs executive order raising minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour, The Associated Press reports.

Ex-U.S. Attorney’s Patrick Fitzgerald, Dan Webb and Andrea Zopp, Tina Tchen among those supporting Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for spot on federal bench

First in Spin: Some of the region’s best known lawyers are going to bat for Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Ahead of her confirmation hearing scheduled tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, two letters signed by more than 200 lawyers — including four former U.S. Attorneys for the Northern District of Illinois — were sent to Durbin on behalf of Jackson-Akiwumi, who at one point served as an assistant federal defender in Chicago for nearly a decade.

One letter garnered 130-plus signatures from the likes of former judges, criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors, including ex-U.S. Attorneys Patrick Fitzgerald, Scott Lassar, Dan Webb, and Anton Valukas. The note pointed out that Jackson-Akiwumi would be the first federal defender ever seated on the court — an important point given the criticism of past presidents who tend to nominate white former prosecutors or corporate attorneys for the bench.

In a separate letter signed by 90 local attorneys, many of whom worked side-by-side or across the table from her in legal cases, they wrote: “We are unified in our support for Candace’s nomination, as we know from our experience with her that she is a talented lawyer, a dedicated public servant, and will serve the court as a champion of justice and the rule of law.”

Among those who signed that letter was Andrea Zopp, a Harvard Law School alum, former CEO of World Business Chicago, the city’s economic development arm, as well as a deputy to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and one-time member of the Chicago Public Schools board. Tina Tchen, a Chicago lawyer who also served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff in the White House, also signed the letter. Read my full story and see what they had to say here.

State Sen. Thomas Cullerton to go on trial in federal embezzlement case a month before 2022 primary

The Tribune’s Jason Meisner writes: A jury trial for Illinois state Sen. Thomas Cullerton on federal embezzlement charges was reset Tuesday for February 2022, in the middle of an election season where the Villa Park Democrat’s seat will be up for grabs.

Cullerton, 51, was charged in 2019 with an alleged scheme to pocket almost $275,000 in salary and benefits from the Teamsters union despite doing little or no work. He’s pleaded not guilty and continued to hold his seat in Springfield while the case is pending, though he was stripped of his chairmanship of the Senate Labor Committee and reassigned to head the Veterans Affairs Committee.

The trial was initially scheduled for last summer but was scuttled by the pandemic. During a brief status hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman reset the jury trial for Feb. 22, though he said it could be moved up if other trials on his schedule do not go forward as planned. The judge scheduled a status hearing for Cullerton’s case for October.

Cullerton was last reelected in 2018 and would next face voters in 2022. If he were to go on trial in February, it would be just a few weeks before the Illinois Democratic primary for the November general election. So far, no Democrat has publicly said they intend to challenge the incumbent if he elects to run.

Cullerton’s lawyer, Daniel Collins, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The indictment charged Cullerton with 39 counts of embezzlement and one count each of conspiracy and making false statements. The charges came three days after former longtime Teamsters boss John Coli Sr. pleaded guilty to extortion charges and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.

According to the indictment, Coli conspired with Cullerton in 2013 to give the newly-elected senator a do-nothing job with the Teamsters. Over the next three years, the two ignored complaints from supervisors when Cullerton failed to even show up for work, according to the charges.

In all, Cullerton was accused of fraudulently obtaining $188,320 in salary, bonuses and cellphone and vehicle allowances from the Teamsters between 2013 and 2016, as well as $64,068 in health and pension contributions. He used those proceeds to pay personal expenses such as his mortgage, utilities and groceries, according to the charges.

Cullerton, a distant cousin of former Senate President John Cullerton, previously served as village president of Villa Park and was first elected to the state Senate in 2012. A statement released by a Cullerton spokeswoman after he was charged said Cullerton “will continue to fight these untrue allegations in court until his name is cleared.”

Coli, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to one count each of receiving illegal payments and filing a false income tax return, admitting he extorted a combined $325,000 from Individual 1 — previously identified by the Tribune as Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the West Side.

State Democratic Party Chair Kelly picks Obama alum Abby Witt as executive director

Illinois Democratic Party chair U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly has picked Abby Witt, who worked on the campaign and in the administration of former President Barack Obama, to be the organization’s executive director.

An Evanston native known for working on progressive campaigns and causes, Witt most recently worked for Arena, a national organization that trains new political candidates and their campaign staff. U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, of Naperville, credited the organization for aiding her first run for Congress in 2018.

“Abby has a proven track record of building inclusive organizations, has established solid relationships throughout the state, and has the vision to lead our party as its executive director,” said Kelly, who was elected state Democratic Party chair earlier this after Michael Madigan exited amid a scandal. “As DPI looks to the future, especially the 2022 election, Abby’s ability to work with Democratic elected officials, candidates, donors, stakeholders and the grassroots community will be a valuable asset.”

Side note: Witt chaired the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of then-candidate Daniel Biss, who was part of a line of Democrats who lost the primary to Pritzker, who eventually went on to unseat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the general election.

Witt said in a statement: “Chairwoman Kelly has never shied away from a challenge, and I’m honored to join her in this one: to build a new, inclusive Democratic Party of Illinois. We have a generational opportunity to transform our Party, to rebuild trust with voters, and to elect Democratic candidates, beginning with reelecting Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Sen. Tammy Duckworth in 2022. I’m excited to get to work.”

Witt played several key roles in the Obama presidential campaigns and administration, according to a release from the state party, including associate director for the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and as the director of political operations for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

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