A look at statewide agencies’ response to COVID-19

Capitol News Service

Gov. J.B. Pritzker updates the state’s efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus in Illinois during his daily update to reporters March 16 at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency office in Springfield. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Ben Orner)

Donations for masks, gloves 

The leader of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association asked other industries to donate masks, gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment to the more than 200 hospitals across the state as they treat patients for the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

Health care workers are “in jeopardy of potentially running out” of those supplies,” A.J. Wilhelmi, the association’s president, said in a statement Thursday, March 19.

“With continuing uncertainties about global and U.S. supplies of face masks, we urgently need to find alternative supplies, no matter where they are, so our hospitals can continue to provide life-saving care to current and future COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Wilhelmi sent a request to dentists, veterinarians, construction companies and others who might have stockpiles of such equipment, which protect nurses, doctors and other health care personnel when treating and evaluating patients.

Blood donations

The federal Food and Drug Administration is calling on Americans to continue “generously” donating blood during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A patient in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion every two seconds, according to the agency, and while officials support social distancing initiatives, that need does not decrease in such times.

“People who donate blood are equivalent to those people who are working in a critical infrastructure industry,” Dr. Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement Thursday, March 19. “…They are contributing immeasurably to the public health of our nation.”

It is safe to donate blood at a center because “they are skilled in infection control practices,” Marks added, and centers have preventative plans to handle infection spread. Those interested could schedule an appointment and receive a call when the center is ready for the donor.

Coronavirus and pets 

The Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association said this week that no scientific evidence suggests pets can contract COVID-19. However, veterinarians recommend pet owners maintain “proper human hygiene” when tending to their animals.

Hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and other cleaning methods should be employed after interacting with pets, but ISVMA Board of Directors President Dr. Olivia Rudolphi warned they cannot be used directly on or around pets.

“The best practice that any pet owner can currently follow is to take care of themselves first by following proper personal hygiene when dealing with this outbreak,” Rudolphi said. “… Limiting your pet’s exposure to individuals and other pets will help keep coronavirus — or any pathogen — from spreading from host to host, be it human or animal.”

She added owners should avoid kisses from and sharing beds with pets, especially if people in the household are showing signs of illness.


Utilities service


Attorney General Kwame Raoul urged Illinoisans to contact his office about utility disconnections or disruptions.

Utility companies were mandated to delay service disconnections and waive late fees by an Illinois Commerce Commission emergency order issued Wednesday, March 18. That moratorium applies to electric gas, water and sewage services.

“It is important that Illinois residents follow guidance issued by public health authorities in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which may mean staying home — potentially for extended periods of time,” Raoul said in a written statement Thursday, March 19. “Being shut off from utility service is the last thing people should worry about as they work remotely, care for vulnerable populations, or self-quarantine.”

The commission’s order applies to public companies in Illinois, not to municipally-owned ones. The attorney general asked those entities to comply with the moratorium anyway.

Residents who experience issues may contact Raoul’s office at his website: https://ccformsubmission.ilattorneygeneral.net.

Marijuana guidance

Illinois officials issued guidance Tuesday, March 17, allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell products on the curb or in parking lots adjacent to their stores. Recreational product sales must still be made in a “limited access area.”

The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation also instructed staff to keep customers at least six feet from one another, and mandated facilities to regularly clean surfaces most touched by customers, including door handles and ordering screens.

“Our top priority is to minimize the risk of and protect as many people from exposure to COVID-19,” Toi Hutchinson, Governor J.B. Pritzker’s senior advisor for cannabis control, said in a statement. “These steps prioritize that critical objective, while also ensuring medical patients have access to the medicine they need.”

A provision in the statute legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana requires dispensaries keep enough product for medical patients at all times, at least eight facilities opted not to continue selling to recreational customers, a spokesperson said.

IDFPR inspectors “will continue to monitor cameras inside dispensaries daily to ensure continued compliance” with the department’s rules, according to a news release. “IDFPR expects dispensaries to answer inspectors’ calls or call them back promptly,” it added.

Cannabis Business Association of Illinois Executive Director Pamela Althoff said the guidance was issued after collaboration between the industry and Pritzker’s administration.

General Assembly postponed

The legislative session that was to begin this week  is canceled, and, like nearly all routines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear when its schedule will return to normalcy.

Jessica Basham, chief of staff to House Speaker Michael Madigan, reiterated in an email to state representatives Wednesday, March 18, that the House’s session schedule remains “in flux” and lawmakers “should be prepared to return to Springfield to address urgent matters.”

“Generally, members should be re-evaluating any and all travel plans, including those made for the weeks of April 5 and April 12 (the legislative spring break),” she said in the email. “This is not only due to the need to practice social distancing to safeguard the health of our communities, but also due to the possible need to return to Springfield for session during that time period.”

The Senate on Wednesday distributed a letter canceling its legislative session next week as well, with a tentative return date set for Tuesday, March 31.

Deadlines for moving legislation in each chamber have been extended as well.

In his daily COVID-19 briefing Wednesday in Murphysboro, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it would be up to the legislative leaders to decide when session will occur, and he noted “things have evolved rapidly.”

He said the session brings not just the 177 lawmakers in the state to the Capitol, but staff, lobbyists and others as well.

“And that’s a gathering that is suggested not to happen according to all the guidelines and of course the order that I gave here in Illinois,” he said.

Financial assistance 

Amid widespread closures and event cancellations in response to the novel coronavirus disease pandemic, businesses and governments of all sizes and levels are feeling the financial stress and considering steps forward.

The federal government on Tuesday, March 17, began debate of an $850 billion stimulus package which could include checks written to all Americans at the urging of President Donald Trump. Another federal bill to provide paid sick leave to workers among other provisions awaits action in the U.S. Senate.

Nearly two weeks ago, Congress approved and Trump signed an $8.3 billion supplemental coronavirus response funding bill, which will provide $14.6 million to the state’s public health department and $8.7 million to Chicago’s. The money can be used for patient monitoring, lab testing, acquisition of test kits and protective equipment, and research into vaccines and therapeutics.

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has urged stronger action from the federal government while also taking COVID-19 response steps at the state level. He noted Tuesday the administration will file for statewide eligibility in a federal loan program for small businesses facing financial hardship.

“My Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has secured the necessary documentation to declare a statewide Economic Injury Declaration with the U.S. Small Business Association,” Pritzker said.  “The SBA is offering coronavirus disaster assistance loans to help impacted companies get through this period of instability, and this will ensure that all of our counties qualify for assistance.”

Eligible small businesses or nonprofits could receive up to $2 million that can be used to pay debts, payroll and other bills they can’t otherwise afford due to the pandemic. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits, and terms can be as long as 30 years, according to the governor’s office.

Teachers’ pay

Illinois teachers and other public school employees will continue to be paid while schools are closed and they will not have to use vacation days or sick leave to account for their absence.

Instead, the days off will be counted as “Act of God” days and employees will be paid as if they were performing normal duties.

That was part of a deal announced Tuesday, March 17, between the state’s two major teachers’ unions and associations representing school administrators and principals that was negotiated by the Pritzker administration and the Illinois State Board of Education.

School employees may, however, be asked to perform some work-related duties during the period although details of that work will have to be negotiated through mutual agreement.

“These are unprecedented times, but we are all together with the goal of caring for students,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Our organizations are truly inspired by the phenomenal cooperation shown across the state and encourage all of our members to be reasonable, creative, and generous while determining what’s best for our students in Illinois.”

Public meetings

Gov. J.B. Pritzker used his emergency powers Monday, March 16, to waive a portion of the Illinois Open Meetings Act to allow local governments and other public bodies to hold “remote” meetings to help control the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

The order waives a portion of the Open Meetings Act that requires a quorum of members of a public body be “physically present” at the meeting location, and limits the circumstances under which an individual member may take part by video or audio conference.

It applies to city councils, county boards, school boards and all other public bodies of state and local government.

Don Craven, legal counsel to the Illinois Press Association, noted in an email that Pritzker did not suspend other provisions of the Open Meetings Act that require public notice be given of all meetings and that require meetings to be open and accessible to the public and press.

“He did not suspend the requirement that the meeting be held in a place open and accessible to the public,” Craven said in the memo. “He did not suspend the requirement that the public be allowed to address the board, which means that there has to be a way for the public to participate by phone.”

The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to provide public notice of a meeting, including the agenda, at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting. Craven encouraged all news outlets that cover those meetings to immediately submit requests for notice of any special, emergency or regular meeting.