CAPITOL RECAP: Tourism, hospitality groups push for reopening clarity

By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD -- Leaders from the state’s tourism and hospitality industry asked legislators for additional support and reopening guidance during a Thursday, April 8, committee hearing as the state plans next steps for its COVID-19 economic recovery.

Michael Jacobson, President and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, told the House Tourism Committee Thursday that hotels have “been among the hardest hit” segment of the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the industry may not see a full recovery until 2024 at the earliest.

Jacobson said Illinois hotels suffered a loss of $3.5 billion in revenue and that over 21,000 hotel employees were laid off as a result of the pandemic over the past year.

Jacobson told legislators that allowing events and gatherings to resume in a safe manner as soon as possible and directing federal support dollars to hotels and businesses most impacted by the pandemic would be key to revitalizing that segment of the economy, which generates billions of dollars in revenue for the state every year.

Jacobson and industry leaders also said passing limited COVID-19 liability protections for businesses would help hotels and businesses to work toward a full recovery.

Rob Karr, President and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said additional guidance from the state on reopening guidelines would be needed in order for struggling businesses to get back on their feet.

Under guidelines set forth in the state’s bridge phase, vaccinated individuals would not count against a business or venue’s capacity restrictions, but Karr questioned how businesses or local authorities would be able to enforce those restrictions.

Jacobson told the committee that a possible alternative would be to base capacity guidelines and mitigations on hospitalization utilization rather than case positivity as more of the state’s population is vaccinated.

Derek Blaida, representing the Illinois Restaurant Association, shared similar concerns, noting 20 percent of Illinois restaurants are expected to close permanently and that over 124,000 food service jobs have been lost as a result of the pandemic.

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INTERVIEW WITH THE TREASURER: What role does the treasurer play in state government?

It depends on the state, but in Illinois, the treasurer’s role differs greatly from the state comptroller, who handles the check-writing as the state’s chief fiscal officer.

The treasurer, on the other hand, serves as the chief investment and banking officer in Illinois. According to the Illinois Constitution, “The Treasurer, in accordance with law, shall be responsible for the safekeeping and investment of monies and securities deposited with him, and for their disbursement upon order of the Comptroller.”

The current treasurer is Michael Frerichs, who first was elected in 2014 as a Champaign Democrat, defeating Republican Tom Cross by less than 0.5 percent of the vote. He gained reelection in 2018 by nearly 20 percent of the vote.

In a podcast interview with Capitol News Illinois, Frerichs explained his role in state government.

“I'm in charge of investing the state’s money. And that right now is somewhere around $17 billion,” he said. “We also help local units of government and smaller units of government invest in a pooled fund. And that's about $7 billion right now. And then we also help families save for themselves, whether that be for college expenses, or for their retirement through a few different programs.”

Frerichs discussed the state’s investments, his office’s efforts to return unclaimed property to Illinoisans, a program he oversees that helps people save for retirement, and whether he plans to run for reelection in 2022 for the latest edition of CapitolCast, a regular podcast of Capitol News Illinois.

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INDOOR DINING LAWSUIT: A Kane County restaurant’s legal challenge to Gov. JB Pritzker’s ban on indoor dining can continue, a Sangamon County judge ruled this week.

Attorneys for Pritzker tried to have the lawsuit dismissed but Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow on Wednesday declined to do so. While Grischow decided not to dismiss the case, she did not reach a decision on the merits of their argument.

The lawsuit from FoxFire restaurant in Geneva argues that Pritzker’s executive order requiring bars and restaurants to close indoor service, which first went into effect last October, should not be allowed because it is arbitrary and unreasonable.

Pritzker’s attorneys claimed that the governor had authority to issue his October 2020 executive order under the state Emergency Management Act.

The governor’s lawyers also argued that Illinois residents who seek to challenge Pritzker’s order as beyond the limits of his power can take action at the ballot box, not through the court system.

Grischow disagreed with this claim about the court’s role to intervene in cases where the constitutional limits of the governor’s authority are questioned.

“[I]t is this court that must ensure the governor does not circumvent the constitutional confines of his authority,” Grischow wrote in her five-page opinion. “This court can inquire as to whether the means utilized in the execution of a power granted are forbidden by the constitution.”

Grischow wrote that her court has the responsibility to determine whether the governor’s “implementation of the business shutdowns and/or restrictions were arbitrary and unreasonable.”

Her opinion also recognized that the restaurant “bears a heavy burden to establish that (the governor’s) actions were clearly arbitrary and unreasonable.”

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COURT EVICTION MORATORIUM: The Illinois Supreme Court issued an order this week creating stronger safeguards for tenants seeking rent relief under the governor’s eviction moratorium.

The court’s revised order makes clear that landlords challenging a tenant’s eviction moratorium protections have to state the legal and factual basis for such a challenge, said Chief Judge Eugene G. Doherty, of the 17th Judicial Circuit, which spans Boone and Winnebago counties.

Doherty is vice chair of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Court Operations During COVID-19 Task Force, which was created in June 2020 and makes recommendations to the Illinois Supreme Court.

“It was feared by some that (the Supreme Court’s previous order) would effectively allow all the cases that the moratorium is keeping out of court to get back into court because if the landlord were to just file a challenge, vaguely worded, to the declaration, the case is now in court,” Doherty said. “And that seems to undercut the purpose of the moratorium.”

The Illinois Supreme Court issued an order in December 2020 relating to the eviction moratorium that outlines the process for landlords to challenge a tenant’s declaration under the order. It amended the order in February and again on Tuesday.

Gov. JB Pritzker reissued his eviction moratorium executive order last week, extending rent relief to tenants who are unable to pay due to economic hardship caused by the pandemic through May 1.

The governor’s reissued order, released on Friday, contains new language that “the judicial branch has the authority to adopt appropriate procedural measures governing the order’s application in judicial proceedings.”

The Illinois Supreme Court’s latest order states that landlords must identify “with specificity the legal or factual basis…for any such challenge.” It also states directly that the “burden to sustain such a challenge remains at all times with the plaintiff/landlord.”

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COMMUNITY COLLEGE DEGREE: A bill that would allow community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees for early childhood education is awaiting consideration before the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Senate Bill 1832, sponsored by Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, D-Chicago, would give Illinois community colleges the option to apply for accreditation to offer a baccalaureate-level early education program.

Illinois Action for Children held a news conference Wednesday with other advocates to discuss the bill. SB 1832 also addresses an issue of equity, Pacione-Zayas said, considering a majority of child care workers are women, women of color and immigrant refugees.

“They have very little pay, anywhere between $10 to $13 an hour, with very little benefits,” Pacione-Zayas said at the news conference. “So much so that 46 percent of them are eligible for public assistance.”

The proposal would help those in early childhood education meet their educational goals in an affordable and accessible way Pacione-Zayas said, setting them on a pathway to economic stability while supporting the development of young children in the state.

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INFRASTRUCTURE GRANTS: The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced a total of $18.2 million in grants will be awarded to 34 downstate and rural communities facing threats to health and safety because of infrastructure issues.

The Community Development Block Grant program for 2020, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is estimated to benefit around 113,266 Illinois residents by funding water and sewer upgrades and repairs in low-income, rural communities.

The repairs must be made to shared water and sewer infrastructure with the intent of enhancing safety and quality of life for those within the eligible cities and towns.

Last year the program received 50 percent more applications than it did the previous year, which DCEO Acting Director Sylvia Garcia said speaks to the program's necessity.

The village of Tampico received the maximum grant amount of $550,000 which will go toward the rehabilitation of its sanitary sewer system, as well as protective lining for storm sewers and manholes.

Metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, suburban Cook County, the Metro East and Peoria, typically receive a direct allocation of federal funds for these types of projects because they are in “entitlement” areas. Most downstate communities do not receive this funding from the federal government, and typically receive these types of funds through the state.

The block grant program prioritizes projects in rural and underserved communities or opportunity zones, which are economically-distressed communities that may qualify for tax deferment, with 51 percent or more low-to-moderate income residencies.

Some of the other grantees include Canton, Toluca, Verona, Broughton, Elliott and Ottawa.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: Gov. JB Pritzker reiterated Thursday, April 9, that all Illinois residents age 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine beginning Monday, April 12, as vaccine supply – but also virus transmission rates and hospitalizations – continues to increase.

 

The city of Chicago, which receives a separate vaccine supply from the state, has said it will expand eligibility to all on April 19, according to the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets, but Chicago residents may make appointments at any site that is accepting Illinoisans regardless of address—including several sites in suburban Cook County.

 

To date, 73 percent of Illinois seniors and 42 percent of Illinoisans 16 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and over 2.5 million, or 20 percent of Illinois residents, had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

The state has administered over 6.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine thus far and set a single-day record for vaccines administered with 154,201 doses Wednesday.

But virus transmission rates also continued to increase Thursday as the vast majority of Illinoisans are short of full vaccination.

Public health officials reported an additional 3,739 new cases of COVID-19 statewide out of 97,741 test results reported over the previous 24 hours. The state’s seven-day rolling positivity rate stood at 4.2 percent Thursday, the highest since Jan. 30 and up 0.7 percentage points from one week ago.

Officials also reported an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday. As of Wednesday night, 1,798 individuals in Illinois were reported to be in the hospital with COVID-19. Of those, 351 were in the ICU and 151 were on ventilators. Those are highs since mid-February.

Pritzker announced an additional 150,000 first-dose vaccine appointments would be made available in Cook County and surrounding areas beginning next week as rapid response teams continue efforts to vaccinate areas with advanced warning signs of COVID-19 resurgence.

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BOOSTING VACCINATION EFFORTS: State officials announced Tuesday, April 6, that Illinois would receive $124 million in federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand its statewide vaccination program.

According to a Tuesday news release, $33 million in funding is expected to be directed to the city of Chicago with the rest being used to expand efforts in other parts of the state.

The release noted that approximately 75 percent of the funding would be used to focus on supplying vaccines to underserved communities, including communities of color, rural areas, and regions disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“With this new funding from the Biden-Harris administration, Illinois will move quickly to further expand our aggressive efforts to reach those most vulnerable to COVID-19,” Gov. JB Pritzker said in a Tuesday statement.

“With mass vaccination sites across the state, rural vaccination teams reaching those with less access to health care, and partnerships with trusted providers in underserved communities, we have built the infrastructure to end this pandemic as quickly as possible, and these new resources will only help us reach that day even sooner,” Pritzker added.

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RURAL VACCINATION TEAMS: The state also announced Tuesday, April 6, that rapid response vaccination teams and additional resources would be deployed to six more Illinois counties in response to “early warning signs of COVID-19 resurgence.”

According to a Tuesday news release, rapid response vaccination teams will be deployed to Fulton, Tazewell and Woodford counties in central Illinois, with additional vaccine doses being directed to Peoria and McLean counties.

The state announced on Monday that it would also send mobile vaccination teams to Kankakee, Vermilion, Livingston, Coles, DeWitt, and White counties this week. The vaccination teams plan to administer single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines in order to quickly mitigate spread, the release said.

State officials urged added caution in following public health guidelines as the state continues to work to vaccinate residents as quickly as possible.

The announcements come as the state prepares to expand vaccine eligibility to all residents over the age of 16 at the more than 900 state vaccination sites beginning April 12, while the Biden administration announced all American adults would be eligible to receive the vaccine by April 19.

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.