On March 19, 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker issued his first stay-at-home order. At the time, most Illinoisans were on board with the temporary inconvenience. We were willing to take this drastic step, to lock ourselves away from extended family and friends, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure our hospitals had enough capacity and ventilators to accommodate the very sick.
We joked about toilet paper shortages, but at the same time, we were sad to see weddings, graduations, proms and other important life events and milestones delayed or canceled. Sadness transformed to worry and anger as time went on and we saw local businesses run by our constituents close their doors forever. None of us knew when the governor asked us to stay home temporarily that a full 12 months later key areas of our lives would still be upended.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics for Illinois, between October 2019 and October 2020, retail ownership dropped 61 percent and bar/restaurant ownership dropped by 71 percent. A recent study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found similar results. These aren’t just numbers. They represent real people; business owners who poured their life and soul into their small businesses and people who relied on those businesses for jobs.
In the governor’s Restore Illinois Plan, Illinoisans were told normalcy would not return until: “Either a vaccine is developed to prevent additional spread of COVID-19, a treatment option is readily available that ensures health care capacity is no longer a concern, or there are no new cases over a sustained period.”
Since the plan was created and publicized, rules, metrics and guidance have changed quickly and regularly, and the goal posts for returning to normalcy keep moving. But one thing has remained constant over the last year: Governor Pritzker still insists on unilaterally controlling every aspect of the COVID-19 response, and he refuses to allow for input from the legislative branch. The governor has issued 76 executive orders over the last year, and during that same time period, legislators have been offered exactly zero opportunities to weigh in on COVID-19 policy decisions.
The authors of the Illinois Constitution were clear in their intent when they created three co-equal branches of government. The legislative branch is responsible for writing and approving the laws, the executive branch is responsible for enacting the laws, and the judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws. Each branch is considered equal in its power- or at least it is supposed to. Our laws allow the governor to issue executive orders during emergencies. Those orders have a 30-day shelf life. The authors of the Constitution never intended for one individual to assume almost full control over the running of the state for months and months, and they never intended for the executive branch to become the policy-making branch.
So far, the state’s COVID-19 response efforts under JB Pritzker and his administration have been marked with controversy. We’ve seen inconsistent standards for different regions, an unemployment benefit system that remains broken, and a very rocky start to the vaccination program. Our continued calls for increased transparency and legislative involvement fall on deaf ears, and now we are told that the metrics required for full opening will change yet again, with the unveiling of a new phase, a “4.5” phase, before our state can enter Phase 5.
As local legislators, we are elected to serve as the voice of roughly 216,000 Illinoisans. Our constituents’ opinions are valid and important, yet their voices are being silenced because we are being silenced. We know our districts, and have a deep understanding of our communities’ unique characteristics. Yet our role has been marginalized as we are kept on the sideline for critical decisions that have decimated our business community and sent over one million Illinoisans to the unemployment line. It is our offices that are flooded with calls and emails from desperate individuals who have had to turn to food pantries and public assistance since their legitimate unemployment claims cannot be properly handled by the Illinois Department of Employment Security. It’s our offices that try our best to help our constituents navigate poorly-run programs that are supposed to provide a critical safety net.
Today, we renew our call for the governor to work with lawmakers, business and healthcare community leaders, and other key stakeholders on a better path forward for Illinois. This unilateral control over every aspect of the COVID-19 response must end. The governor must stop disenfranchising Illinoisans who sent specific legislators to Springfield to act on their behalf, and together, we must work collaboratively to help those who have endured a disproportionate share of hardship rebuild.