Illinois’ economy stuck trying to get through Pritzker’s COVID-19 ‘bridge phase’

Illinois’ economy stuck trying to get through Pritzker’s COVID-19 ‘bridge phase’

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Illinois is close to starting the extra ‘bridge phase’ of mandates he added in March, but over a year into his COVID-19 restrictions it is another barricade to the state’s economy. States with fewer limits are seeing bigger declines in infections.

Illinois used to have a five-phase reopening plan. Then Gov. J.B. Pritzker added a “bridge phase,” giving the state’s economy an extra obstacle. Pritzker is hinting Illinois may enter the bridge soon, but most people are wondering: How long will we be stuck there?

If reopening policies are on a spectrum, Illinois is on the sluggish end of the scale, with capacity restrictions still limiting business activity and impacting daily life in significant ways. No other Midwestern state is even close to Illinois’ 7.1% unemployment rate.

Nearly a year ago, on May 5, 2020, Pritzker announced his first outline for reopening. The governor’s “Restore Illinois” plan gave a general framework for what to expect, but it lacked specificity needed for residents and businesses to be able to make plans of their own. That guidance trickled out slowly over many months, but many business owners and workers still felt confused as they navigated everyday operations.

After living under Pritzker’s five-step plan for nearly a year, Pritzker on March 18 added a sixth phase to his plan, calling it a “bridge” to full reopening.

One of the keys to reaching the bridge was that 70% of Illinoisans age 65 and up had received at least one dose of the vaccine. The state reached that milestone in late March.

But because of another metric – no “upticks” in hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths for a 28-day period – the Pritzker administration held off on allowing Illinois to enter the “bridge phase.” Here’s what that phase will allow, once it’s reached:

  • Social events can have up to 250 attendees indoors or 500 attendees outdoors
  • Conventions can host the lesser of 60% total capacity or 1,000 attendees
  • Seated spectator events can host 60% total capacity indoors and outdoors
  • Zoos and museums can host 60% of total capacity
  • Seated indoor dining remains limited to 10 people per party

What the governor calls “Phase 5” – the sixth step in his plan, or “full reopening” – can only begin once 50% of Illinoisans 16 and older have been vaccinated or COVID-19 metrics decline over a 28-day period.

As of April 29, 53% of Illinoisans 16 and older had been vaccinated or at least received the first dose of the COVID vaccine. Recent CDC research on vaccine effectiveness found that one dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines was 80% effective in preventing COVID-19.

Pritzker’s willingness to change the targets again and again makes stability impossible and leaves residents in constant confusion. For example, on April 19 the governor signaled stricter restrictions may return to some parts of the state. But on April 28, his team was hinting that Illinois may enter his “bridge phase” in a matter of days.

Pritzker’s carrot and stick approach to governing is wearing out Illinoisans, especially as the nation watches states that have been quicker to reopen experience better outcomes.

Arizona, Connecticut, Alabama and West Virginia rolled back mask mandates and capacity restrictions last month. Florida and Georgia never enacted these mandates at all.

Texas fully reopened its economy in early March, too.

COVID-19 deaths in Texas are down 20% and cases are down 14% during the past two weeks, according to data reported by The New York Times. Businesses in Texas are free to implement – or eschew – the restrictions they see fit, including requiring masks and limiting capacity.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, deaths are up 18% while cases are trending down 19%, as of April 29.

So why is Illinois slow-walking its reopening? Even Michigan, which has operated in near lockstep with Illinois’ restrictive approach, is set to begin full reopening with clear guidance and timelines.

Illinois just experienced the worst year for jobs in the state’s history, with 423,300 Illinoisans unemployed. Black employment dipped by 15.2%, Hispanic employment declined by 8.4% and white employment declined by 7.3% compared to February 2020.

With tens of thousands of unemployed residents still awaiting a call back from the Illinois Department of Employment Security, people are running out of options.

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