4 problems with Pritzker’s reopening plan

4 problems with Pritzker’s reopening plan

‘Restore Illinois’ is short on details about when and how Illinoisans can get back to work.

Thousands of Illinoisans have been without a paycheck since March due to plummeting consumer demand and the shutdown of businesses and institutions amid the COVID-19 virus and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders. These people are desperate to know when they can safely return to work and reopen their businesses, and how that will proceed.

To move forward, Illinoisans need certainty. They need details on what a safe return to work and other activities will look like, and when that will take place.

On May 5, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office announced an outline for reopening. The governor’s “Restore Illinois” plan provides a general framework for what to expect, but it’s not specific enough to give residents and businesses the information and confidence they need to make their own plans.

The governor’s plan falls short on four counts. First, it does not seem to have been devised in consultation with many of the Illinoisans whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. The plan provides no clear reopening timeline or even estimated dates to help residents envision the end of the lockdown and plan their futures. The plan lacks specific guidelines for businesses and institutions to strategize about the changes they will need to make to operate once reopening is underway. Finally, Restore Illinois lacks nuance and does not allow for creative solutions that could safely expand and speed up reopening opportunities. The governor should rewrite the plan and address these shortcomings.

What’s the plan? 

Under Restore Illinois, the state is divided into four geographical regions, each of which goes through five stages on its own timetable to arrive at a fully reopened economy. Moving from one stage to the next requires that health metrics be met regarding case positivity rates, health system capacity, and testing and contact tracing ability.

All of Illinois has passed the strictest lockdown in Phase 1 and is now in Phase 2. To move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 or from Phase 3 to Phase 4, a region must have:

  1. A 20% or less COVID-19 positivity rate that increases no more than 10 percentage points over 14 days
  2. No overall increase in hospital admissions for 28 days
  3. Available surge capacity in medical and surgical hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators of 14%
  4. Achieved specified testing and tracing capacity.

To move from Phase 4 to the post-pandemic Phase 5 requires a vaccine, widely available effective treatment, or elimination of new cases over a sustained period.

The five phases are:

  1. Rapid spread. The first phase involves strict stay-at-home guidelines, with all schools closed for in-person instruction, “nonessential” public and private gatherings banned, and “nonessential” businesses closed to the public. This began across the state March 21 with the governor’s stay-at-home order, and ended when the governor slightly eased restrictions on May 1.
  2. Flattening. The second phase began May 1 and allows “nonessential” retail businesses to reopen for curbside pickup and delivery. State parks can reopen, and fishing, boating and golf can resume with limitations on the number of people in a party. Personal care businesses remain closed, and bars and restaurants are open for pick-up, drive-through and delivery only. Only manufacturing businesses deemed “essential” can operate.
  3. Recovery. Phase 3 contemplates that manufacturing, offices, salons, barbershops and retail stores will reopen to the public with capacity restrictions and other safety measures in place. Gatherings of 10 people or fewer are allowed. Limited child care and summer programs will be allowed with Illinois Department of Public Health safety guidance. Bars and restaurants will still be closed to dining in. Health clubs can open only for outdoor classes and one-on-one training. Nonessential manufacturing that can operate with social distancing can open. Telework is strongly encouraged, though office employees in nonessential businesses can return to the workplace if IDPH guidelines are followed.
  4. Revitalization. In Phase 4, restaurants and bars can reopen with capacity limitations. Nonessential travel can resume, and child care and schools can reopen under IDPH guidance. Gatherings of 50 or fewer are allowed. Health clubs can operate with capacity limitations. Cinemas and theaters can reopen, subject to capacity limitations.
  5. Illinois restored. In the final phase, the economy is fully reopened, including conventions, festivals and other large events. Schools, places of recreation and all other businesses are open with safety guidelines in place.

Here are four key problems with the governor’s plan.

1. No consultation with Illinoisans most affected

 Many of the reopening plans put out by governors of other states list the parties with which the governors consulted. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Leads Together, for example, lists as task force and committee members legislative officeholders, representatives from local governments and chambers of commerce, and groups and businesses in the finance, real estate, tourism, restaurant, health care, arts, tech, retail, manufacturing and energy sectors, among others.

In Ohio, business groups including the Chamber of Commerce, Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and the Ohio chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, put out a statement lauding the staged reopening of Ohio starting May 1 and noted, “We appreciate that the DeWine Administration listened to the business community as well as relevant experts in establishing the required safety protocols.” The Ohio Township Association said, “The OTA looks forward to continued collaboration on addressing the needs of Ohio townships and those they serve. The OTA is grateful for the leadership of the DeWine Administration during this difficult time.”

By contrast, several Illinois industry representatives have called out Pritzker for failing to consult some of the key parties affected by his stay-at-home order and reopening plan. Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, told the Chicago Tribune, “The state did not really collaborate with us,” despite the fact that restaurants are “the largest private-sector employer in the state of Illinois.” Todd Maisch, CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said businesses “are not happy with this plan,” according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Illinois Retail Merchants Association President Rob Karr said, “Retailers are going out of business and we don’t believe this [plan] strikes a realistic balance.”

Moreover, while the governor has noted he is relying on experts for his public health-based reopening metrics, he has not identified them in the plan. In Maryland, however, Gov. Larry Hogan listed the members of his Coronavirus Recovery Team, including the names and affiliated institutions of the health experts advising him. Identifying the people on whose advice a governor relies is a key requirement of transparency. Restore Illinois comes up short on this metric.

2. Unclear timeline

The governor extended the stay-at-home order through the end of May, and the earliest any region could move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 would be the end of May.

Yet, the timeline for reopening is impossible to discern from the plan document.

While Pritzker said he would not guarantee reopening on any specific dates, his plan also lacks any estimated dates based on where the four regions are with respect to the health metrics he has laid out. Nor does the plan point to the IDPH website page with the relevant health criteria for someone trying to figure it out on their own.

Moreover, the health metrics around testing and tracing capacity are not tied to specific numbers. To advance from Phase 2, testing must be “available” for groups of people such as “all patients, health care workers, first responders, persons with underlying conditions, and residents and staff in congregate living facilities.” But there is no indication as to how many tests that is for any region, or whether any regions currently have that testing capacity.

Similarly, to move to Phase 3, contact tracing and monitoring must be able to be commenced within 24 hours of diagnosis. However, information about these benchmarks is nowhere on IDPH’s site, making it impossible to tell when those reopening criteria will be met for any region.

A barber trying to determine when he could reopen his shop would have to go to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website and browse around. It would take a few clicks to find the relevant regional metrics, and the barber would have to compare the data for his region to the Restore Illinois plan and the criteria laid out for moving from Phase 2 to Phase 3. But the IDPH website does not have any information on where a given region’s testing and tracing capacity is at the moment relative to the next phase. The barber cannot tell for sure when he can likely reopen, even if his regional hospitalization rate and other health metrics all meet the benchmarks.

This is of little use to business owners trying to plan for the future or to employees calculating how many more days they will have to go without a paycheck.

Utah Leads Together, by contrast, lays out where the state was in meeting its health metrics at the time the second version of the plan was issued in April. It also shows the date on which the state entered Phase 1 and the number of weeks each phase is expected to take, along with an estimated timeline for the stages of reopening. Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order moving the state to moderate risk from high risk on April 30, which is a stage when restaurants and retail businesses are allowed to reopen with capacity restrictions.

3. No industry-specific guidelines

Restore Illinois is a 10-page broad outline that does not give industries specific guidance on the adjustments they will need to make in order to reopen. Retail businesses allowed to reopen in Phase 3, for example, will be operating under “capacity limits and IDPH approved safety guidance.” However, the plan does not indicate what those safety guidelines might be. The Restore Illinois tab on IDPH’s website has no guidelines for industries about reopening, either.

Responsible Restart Ohio, on the other hand, has reopening operating requirements listed by industry. Consumer, Retail and Services businesses, for example, receive advice from the state regarding ideal customer service practices, such as maximizing the use of appointments and staggering the entry of customers, as well as hourly disinfecting of high-contact surfaces. Nail salon and barbershop owners are advised to have employees wear gloves if possible, to clean chairs and equipment between clients, and to refrain from stocking magazines in waiting areas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has industry-specific checklists for reopening, too. Restaurant managers, for example, can see in the guidelines that they should not seat tables of more than six people and that parties must stay six feet away from each other while waiting in line. The guidelines also tell businesses what measures to take to ensure they recognize illness and stop sick employees from working.

4. Blunt tools and overly broad categories

The Restore Illinois plan also uses one-size-fits-all categories and fails to take into consideration different ways some businesses could safely reopen earlier.

Restaurateur R.J. Melman, of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, described the governor’s apparent July timeline for restaurants to reopen as a “gut punch” and wondered how restaurants could possibly survive a 17-week closure.

Yet there is evidence the virus spreads less easily outside, for example. Could Illinois restaurants safely open sooner for outdoor seating?

Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, cited studies that demonstrate lower transmission risk in outdoor settings compared with confined indoor spaces. He recommended states “look to ease rules to allow more recreational, religious and business activities to occur outside.”

Cities around the U.S. and as far away as Vilnius, Lithuania, are making plans to close off streets to car traffic to make room for more outdoor dining as they try to help struggling restaurants safely serve customers.

Why couldn’t Illinois cities do the same? And why stop with restaurants? Could curbside retail become outdoor markets? Could theater productions be staged outside? The Pritzker administration should work with businesses and institutions of all stripes to come up with creative solutions to safely reopen more parts of Illinois’ economy.

Restore Illinois is a start, but the governor should work with Illinoisans to provide more details on when and how they can get back to work and to arrive at more ways to make that happen safely, and sooner.

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