Editorial: Illinois’ very slow COVID-19 recovery painted as a win by state leaders

Editorial: Illinois’ very slow COVID-19 recovery painted as a win by state leaders

State leaders issued a report touting Illinois’ abandonment of representational government in favor of executive fiat during the pandemic as effective. They failed to take responsibility for job recovery lagging the nation by a year and seeing public schools suffer.

Illinois was one of the last states in the country to end COVID-19 executive orders. We had some of the toughest restrictions on businesses and individuals, as well as some of the longest-lasting school closures.

So, it was surprising to read state bureaucrats think, for the most part, the state’s response to the pandemic was pretty good. The state of Illinois quietly released a report to that effect during a Friday afternoon news dump May 10. To their credit, they acknowledged the need to produce an after-action report, studying what went well and what could be improved.

For instance, the report flags “bureaucratic hiring processes” as a hindrance to Illinois’ ability to navigate the pandemic. But the analysis doesn’t include a review of how the state’s response to COVID-19 impacted Illinois’ economy, its students or its population.

It also doesn’t answer the most important question of all: Did the state’s drastic lockdown rules keep Illinoisans safe? According to The New York Times’ COVID-19 data tracker, Illinois’ all-time pandemic death rate per 100,000 people was higher than Texas, which remained more open during the pandemic.

Anyway, none of that was in the report. Instead, report authors touted Illinois’ high vaccination rate among Black and Hispanic residents, as well as its “effective use of executive orders.”

The report reads: “Illinois acted early and effectively in using its legal authorities to support the response. The Governor’s Emergency Declaration materially sped up procurement to acquire needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in early days, with limited reports of increased serious fraud or abuse.”

It’s fair to say Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s use of emergency orders expedited decision-making, but that’s about the best that can be said. And Pritzker was not the only official handing down mandates: local governments and individual school districts did have some variation in terms of the severity of restrictions. Still, the governor enforced school closure guidelines that restricted districts’ ability to operate, and the Department of Public Health’s rules drastically hindered business’ ability to stay afloat. Regardless of whether you were pro- or anti-masking, pro- or anti-vaccine mandate, or your position on any of the other countless, polarizing issues that arose during COVID-19, it’s hard to argue Illinois’ schools and business climate are not still struggling to recover from the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns.

Illinois didn’t recover pandemic-era job losses until July 2023, a year after the rest of the country. Reading and math scores among Illinois students are improving, thankfully, but still have not recovered from 2019. Chronic absenteeism is at nearly 30% statewide. Research shows districts where classes were closed longer lost significantly more students. Illinois’ public schools have seen enrollment drop by 127,000 students. What’s worse is experts are now reporting school closures did not effectively prevent disease activity.

“Infectious disease leaders have generally agreed that school closures were not an important strategy in stemming the spread of COVID,” Dr. Jeanne Noble, who directed the COVID-19 response for the emergency department at the University of California San Francisco Parnassus medical center, told The New York Times.

An all-encompassing after-action report would account for the economic, academic and population-related issues Illinois faced during more than three years of COVID-19 emergency orders. Illinois’ sluggish jobs recovery from the pandemic was made even worse because of our ongoing population loss. Illinois’ population decline continued for its 10th consecutive year in 2023 as the state’s population dropped by 32,826 residents from July 2022-July 2023. This exodus is being driven by people leaving for other states – 97% of those who moved away left for lower-tax states such as Texas and Florida. From 2021-2022, Illinois lost 37,217 residents ages 5-18. When school enrollment figures for 2023 come out later this year, we’ll see if the state continued to lose school-age children to other states, which could help explain the enrollment drop in our public schools.

Pritzker’s emergency powers lasted 1,155 days. He issued 42 executive orders. In May 2023, Illinois was one of just six states still under emergency powers. Where’s the cost-benefit analysis of those decisions, not to mention the abdication of responsibility by state lawmakers who after the first month should have debated and granted these executive powers if warranted?

Should one person be allowed to set the rules for an entire state this way for more than three years?

Pritzker was allowed to extend 30-day disaster proclamations without the approval of both chambers of the General Assembly. That’s not the norm is most states. Most other states’ lawmakers have the power to terminate a governor’s emergency powers by a joint resolution passed by both chambers. Arizona, Louisiana and Virginia all enacted laws in 2022 increasing legislative oversight of executive powers. Our democracy is not intended to extend such unilateral authority to the executive branch, and certainly not for years and years.

Given Illinois’ painful path to recovery after the COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s worth forcing ourselves to relive what that time was like. We should consider adjusting the rules to make sure the people elected to represent us are truly representing us, rather than feeling relieved someone else is doing their job.

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