Chicago, Cook County under emergency rule for 22 months. How can that be?

Chicago, Cook County under emergency rule for 22 months. How can that be?

Chicago and Cook County leaders have exercised executive emergency powers for 22 months to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Why can they do that and when does it end?

Chicago and Cook County have been in a state of emergency since March 2020 as leaders handled the COVID-19 pandemic, but at what point does the emergency end and representative government return?

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have implemented measures intended to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including the closure of Chicago’s public parks, the Lakefront, and Riverwalk, stay at home orders, and recently, proof of  vaccination mandates for certain indoor venues and public employees for both Chicago and Cook County.

The source of this authority comes from both state statute and the respective municipal codes of the city and county. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act gives the principal executive officer of a local government the authority to declare a local disaster and implement an emergency operations plan. Both the Chicago City Council and Cook County Board have also voted to give their executives additional authority during the pandemic.

In Chicago, the mayor is ex officio coordinator of activities in cases of emergency under the city’s municipal code. “[The mayor] shall formulate, and, as occasion therefor arises, [she] shall execute plans for the prevention of such emergencies so far as possible and for meeting them effectively when they arise. Obedience to [her] orders in executing such plans and meeting such emergencies is obligatory upon all departments and heads of departments and upon all other officers and employees of the City of Chicago.”

Furthermore, the mayor appoints the commissioner of public health, who is granted police powers to “correct, by whatever means are necessary, any health hazard that presents an immediate risk to the life or health of one or more citizens of the City of Chicago,” which specifically includes ordering the vacating or closing of premises to prevent communicable disease.

The code prohibits the department from promulgating rules compelling any person to submit to immunization or medication against his will “except when there shall be an epidemic of a disease, or an epidemic is or appears to be imminent, and such a rule is necessary to arrest the epidemic and safeguard the health of the City.”

For its part, the Cook County municipal code states that upon declaration of a disaster by the governor or county president, the president of the board has authority to utilize resources for disaster response, to suspend regulations and to enter into contracts to respond to a disaster.

The president and the board also appoint the county board of health, which has the power to determine “when diseases are contagious or epidemic or when a danger to the public’s health exists and order those measures deemed necessary to protect the public’s health.”

These include, but are not limited to: “the quarantine or isolation of persons or closure of places when such action is required to protect the public’s health, until such time as the condition can be corrected or the danger to the public health eliminated or reduced in such a manner that no immediate threat to the public health any longer exists.”

The state can limit city and county power by law, but because both Cook County and Chicago are home rule units, any such law must explicitly state that the General Assembly intends to limit home rule authority. So far, the General Assembly has been unwilling to act to limit either state or local executive authority.

For the city, county and state, the emergency is 22 months old. How long will elected representatives be content to allow executive officers to make the rules?

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