Pritzker reacts to warning about closed polling places, vows COVID-19 won’t close them

Pritzker reacts to warning about closed polling places, vows COVID-19 won’t close them

Executive orders could impact the election and are impacting Illinois restaurants and bars. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is being asked for some assurances and the data behind his science.

A Chicago alderman’s warning about sudden polling place closures thanks to COVID-19 orders had a Cook County commissioner asking Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reassure voters a statewide closure will not be used to impact the election.

And Pritzker reacted: “The governor is not going to stop the election from taking place,” his spokeswoman stated Oct. 30. “We have given instructions to locals on how best to conduct elections in this environment and polling places are not subject to the mitigation.”

The concern started when embattled Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, sent a letter to constituents urging early voting to avoid sudden Election Day closures.

“Remember, thirty percent of the polling locations in the 14th Ward have been relocated due to COVID-19. With COVID-19 on the rise, the likelihood of polling place locations closing is possible, without notice, as happened in the March election,” Burke’s letter states.

That set off Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Republican from Palos Park, who called on Pritzker to tell voters he would not issue shutdown orders for Election Day gain.

“I publicly challenge the governor to assure Illinois voters he will not interfere with the November 3rd election by proclaiming an emergency COVID shutdown similar to the one he proclaimed in March,” Morrison told Illinois Review.

Pritzker then responded with the assurance.

The suspicions came as Illinois bars and restaurants are becoming more combative over Pritzker’s COVID-19 orders to close their indoor facilities just as the weather has grown colder. The Illinois Restaurant Association is challenging Pritzker’s data used to determine they are spreading the virus, and its president said it is “exploring all possible legal remedies.”

“COVID-19 cases are rising in Illinois, but the fact is that restaurants are not to blame. Restaurants are highly regulated, frequently inspected, and held to the highest health standards. Keeping people safe is what restaurants do every single day,” the group stated in an appeal to Pritzker and state lawmakers.

“Closing restaurants for indoor service will result in the exact opposite of the intended impact of slowing the spread, as it drives people further into uncontrolled, unmonitored private gatherings where few safety precautions are in place.”

Kristan Vaughan and her family owned seven Irish restaurants and pubs in and near Chicago before the pandemic but were forced to sell one and are trying to sell another as a result of the closure orders. Pritzker’s COVID-19 order is again shutting down her indoor facilities Oct. 30.

Two of her 160 employees tested positive for the virus, but both contracted it from small settings outside the restaurant. Neither spread it to patrons, she said.

“I would never choose income over someone’s life. That’s why we take precautions and make sure customers are comfortable with coming in,” she said.

“I’m very disturbed the restaurant industry is being singled out. The evidence does not show we are the cause of the spread,” she said.

Restaurants pressed Pritzker for proof that they were causing the spread, and the Illinois Department of Public Health responded with a chart that showed contact tracers determined that of 17,939 positive cases, 2,300 people had visited a restaurant in the prior two weeks. Pritzker admitted to WLS-TV in Chicago the link between cause and effect was thin.

“Contact tracing data doesn’t tell you where somebody’s caught it. In fact, there’s no way really… to know where somebody’s contracted COVID-19,” Pritzker said.

A steakhouse in Geneva, Illinois, is challenging the authority Pritzker is using to force closures and won a court order to stay open as the case continues. The order only applies to FoxFire restaurant, which stated on Facebook that they can better determine what is safe and reasonable for their customers and staff.

“Closing would not only devastate our family and business, but it would also have a worse effect on our staff and those who deem our little restaurant essential to their livelihood; our vendors, farmers, and the local community. Please note this by no means mean we are throwing our masks into the Garbage, or changing how we do things! We will do all we can to keep our staff and our guests safe during this pandemic.”

Estimates of how many restaurants will permanently close from the COVID-19 mandates range from 5,000 to 21,700 establishments. The state’s restaurant association said the 5,000 number would mean 120,000 lost jobs.

Pritzker has declared nine separate statewide emergencies resulting from COVID-19, and used those declarations to issue emergency orders such as the restaurant closures. State law neither allows nor prohibits his continual disaster declarations, but lawmakers have failed to restrict his powers.

That could change: Five Chicago-area Democratic state lawmakers wrote Pritzker with concerns about the orders’ impacts on businesses. A sixth, state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, said Pritzker “can’t rule with an iron fist.” He said Illinoisans need to be heard and he insisted on public hearings.

“Taxpayers deserve to be included in this process so they can share their data as well,” Ford said.

Pritzker’s powers and the statewide question on his “fair tax” factor in to both the COVID-19 closed polling places issue as well as the restaurant issue.

Morrison’s worry about statewide restrictions closing polling places might impact the tax question if opponents of Pritzker’s “fair tax” are more likely to vote in person. The tax scheme could have a big impact on more than 100,000 small businesses, including restaurants, because they would face tax increases of up to 47% as they struggle to recover from COVID-19 mandates.

Illinois’ restaurants and bars face significant challenges to their survival. Clearer answers about the science used to determine their fates would help, but so would the certainty voters could provide by rejecting Pritzker’s “fair tax” on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Update: This story was updated to reflect remarks from Gov. J.B. Pritzker made to Springfield-based political blog Capitol Fax after publication.

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