Pritzker emergency No. 20 comes nearly 3 months after Illinois’ full reopening
Illinois has been ruled by executive order since early March 2020, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker reissuing statewide COVID-19 disaster proclamations every 30 days. On Aug. 20 he declared Illinois a disaster for the 20th time.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 20 issued his 20th statewide COVID-19 disaster proclamation, meaning by the end of this new proclamation he will have declared Illinois to be in a state of disaster for 559 consecutive days.
Pritzker’s spokesperson, Jordan Abudayyeh, said the latest declaration had been signed Aug. 20. The proclamations allow him to extended his emergency powers for additional 30-day periods on his own authority, an authority that has faced 19 court challenges.
“We’ve looked at that, we continue to look at it. We’ll make a decision about that soon,” he said when a reporter asked about whether it might be extended.
Pritzker had previously justified his retention of emergency powers as necessary in the absence of accessible COVID-19 vaccines for Illinoisans. He has argued they were still needed to provide and promote state vaccination efforts, even after the state reached his Phase 5, full reopening in June.
When pressed in a July 26 interview on what specific statistic the state would need to meet for him to relinquish his emergency powers, Pritzker responded in generalities.
“There’s always something that we need to be monitoring about this pandemic because as you’ve seen that even though we have vaccines available there is a good number of people in our population who are not yet vaccinated,” Pritzker told Illinois Capitol News.
“What’s important is to keep the people of Illinois healthy and safe, and that’s making sure people get vaccinated.”
Pritzker did not specify how many Illinoisans would have to get vaccinated for him to lift the state’s disaster status. Nor did Pritzker provide any specifics on when he would give up his emergency powers.
Pritzker first declared a statewide disaster when COVID-19 hit in mid-March 2020, invoking the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act. A section of the act provides that in the case of a disaster, the governor can issue a proclamation declaring the disaster and grant himself 30 days of emergency powers over state institutions, operations and public health.
Pritzker has invoked his emergency powers to sign 80 executive orders into law during the past 17 months. These executive orders include issuing statewide stay-at-home orders, limiting the size of public gatherings, suspending the enforcement of laws and agency operations and closing schools and businesses deemed non-essential.
He most recently used them to mandate masks in both private and public schools, regardless of whether students and staff are vaccinated. One private school that tried to go mask optional was quickly reprimanded and threatened by the state. A school board member had his medical license threatened over his opposition.
Pritzker initially said he was allowing elected local school leaders determine mask policy, but a few weeks later he flip-flopped on the issue because he said too few were making what he considered to be the correct decision.
“Far too few school districts have chosen to follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prescription for keeping students and staff safe,” Pritzker said Aug. 4. “Given the CDC’s strong recommendation, I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is.”
The CDC “recommends” masks in schools.
While Illinois’ emergency management act states emergency powers are limited to 30 days, Pritzker has claimed he can extend his emergency power indefinitely. He simply needs to issue new disaster proclamations as they expire, which he did again Aug. 20.
Without explicit rules on if Pritzker can extend his emergency power on his own authority, the task falls to the Illinois General Assembly to clarify with new legislation. State lawmakers have declined to do so.
Most states have not allowed emergency powers to last indefinitely. Emergency executive powers are meant to allow the governor to quickly address a disaster in a way that a deliberative body such as the General Assembly cannot. But when the disaster is nearly a year and one-half old, there is little reason for rules to be dictated rather than debated and implemented by elected representatives.
Since declaring a second disaster proclamation and shutting down non-essential businesses by executive order, Pritzker has become the target of 19 lawsuits alleging he overstepped his authority.
State courts have since ruled to uphold the mitigation policies introduced under Pritzker’s Restore Illinois reopening plan and affirm his claim to emergency power by executive order for as long as he believes the disaster that caused the emergency continues.
Illinois has made the mistake of putting unprecedented power in the hands of politicians before, giving rise to the state’s second-worst in the nation culture of corruption. But rather than return power to the elected officials Illinoisans chose to represent them, the majority of lawmakers have remained silent while Pritzker extended his emergency powers without constraint.
Now that Pritzker’s again anointed himself for a 20th time, state lawmakers would be wise to impose some limits. After 559 days, it will be hard to argue the emergency precluded elected representatives from weighing in on one-man rule.