Legislative News from Senator Craig Wilcox

Governor Outlines Bridge Phase for Reopening
In Governor Pritzker’s Restore Illinois mitigation plan, he states that Phase 5 (return to normal) would not occur 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.”  We have three approved vaccines and by the Governor’s own admission at least 100,000 Illinoisans are receiving the vaccine every day and he expects that number to grow in the coming weeks.

Despite having achieved the milestone the Governor originally put in place, on Thursday the Governor announced that Phase 5 would not be coming any time soon. Instead, the Governor outlined a new phase, a “bridge” phase, with additional requirements that must be met before he will allow Illinois to enter a phase of full reopening.

It is important to note that legislators learned the details of the new “bridge” plan at the same time as the general public. Once again, the Governor created these new requirements without consulting with the legislature. Even though the Senate and House are back in session in Springfield, the Governor still insists on going it alone with every aspect of the COVID-19 response.

According to the Governor’s new plan, this newly-created bridge phase will kick in once the following benchmarks are met for 28 consecutive days:

  • 70% of people 65 and older have received at least one vaccination dose (currently at 58%);
  • ICU bed availability remains at 20% or greater; and
  • there is a non-increasing trend in COVID-19 hospital admissions and mortality rate.

After moving to the bridge phase, transitioning to Phase 5 still cannot occur until 50% of those age 16-64 have received at least one vaccination dose (currently at 28%), and ICU availability, hospital admission and death rates are maintained or trend downward. Those age 16+ will be eligible for vaccines on April 12.

Due to ongoing requests from the business community and from legislators, the Governor also announced a small change to current Phase 4 mitigations, and slightly relaxed mitigations for the bridge phase. During the Bridge Phase, restaurants could move to 30 percent indoor capacity and 50 percent outdoor capacity. Offices, retail, and health and fitness centers could move to 50 percent capacity. Conference and convention venues would be allowed to move to the lesser of 60 percent capacity or 1,000 people. Two hundred and fifty people would be allowed for indoor social events and 500 people for outdoor social events. Theaters would be allowed to operate at 60 percent capacity. Click here to view a detailed chart for settings, and how capacity limits would change between Phase 4 and the bridge phase.

When making his announcement on Thursday, the Governor once again said science and data are driving his decisions. Despite repeated requests by lawmakers, he has yet to provide us with the specific science and data he is using. He is also leaving no room for geographical differences, as he announced that the entire state will move from Phase 4 to the bridge phase and to Phase 5 together.

We are a full year into the health pandemic. During these last 12 months the Governor has issued 76 individual Executive Orders, and during this time legislators have been offered exactly zero opportunities to provide input on pandemic policy decisions. Two of my Senate colleagues and I penned a guest editorial about the issue, and it was published last week by Shaw Media. You can read our op ed here.

National Guard to assist with McHenry and Lake County vaccination efforts
The Illinois National Guard has been deployed to McHenry and Lake Counties to provide assistance to county health departments that are working diligently to vaccinate qualifying residents. National guardsmen and women are helping at the Lake County fairgrounds in Grayslake to help bolster existing operations there, while other personnel will be providing assistance at vaccination sites throughout McHenry County.

Upon learning of the deployment, Mark Pfister, Executive Director of the Lake County Health Department said, “The teams of vaccinators provided will free up our existing staff to serve at more locations throughout Lake County and assure equitable distribution of vaccine,” and Melissa Adamson, Public Health Administrator of the McHenry County Department of health said, “We appreciate the Illinois National Guard supporting vaccination efforts in McHenry County. The addition of a mobile and fixed team will help us expand our capacity so that we can get more residents vaccinated faster. The staffing resources the guard brings will not only enable us to expand the hours of operation and serve more people at the McHenry mass vaccination, but also strategically target businesses and communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.” 

Redistricting process begins
The Illinois Senate and House Redistricting committees began this week to hold the first of many hearings as the once-a-decade remap process gets underway. Every 10 years, following the decennial U.S. census, lawmakers are required to update legislative and congressional districts to match changes and shifts in population. Historically, Illinois has a notorious reputation for partisan, “gerrymandered” district maps. The existing process is a winner-take-all system where the party in power has the ability to draw maps that favor their candidates. This often leads to legislative districts that so strongly favor one party that sitting lawmakers repeatedly run for reelection unopposed. In 2020, 62 out of 138 legislative races on the ballot were uncontested.

The Senate Republican Caucus has repeatedly called for reforms to the redistricting system, and for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan map-making committee. Leaders across the country agree, from former Presidents Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, that gerrymandering is bad for democracy.

McHenry County Conservation District receives bike path grant
Grants were unveiled last week for development and improvements to bike path facilities throughout Illinois, and I am pleased to announce that the McHenry County Conservation District will receive a $50,000 grant for renovations between Barnard Mill Road and the pedestrian bridge just off that road in Ringwood. The project involves reestablishing the storm sewer outlet, re-grading the existing ditch, repairing trail erosion, resurfacing of the asphalt trail, and restoring the turf shoulders to improve drainage. The McHenry County allocation is part of an $885,300 total allocation for bike path projects.

Funds for the Bicycle Path Grant Program, administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), are for the acquisition of land or development of facilities for bicycle paths. The Bicycle Path Grant Program was approved by the Illinois General Assembly in 1989 and funding comes from a percentage of motor vehicle title fees. The program provided a maximum grant award of $200,000 per application for development projects, with no maximum grant award limit for acquisition projects.

The Bicycle Path Notice of Funding Opportunity received a total of 33 applications totaling $4.9 million in requested funds. Since 1990, IDNR has awarded grants that have helped develop nearly 1,000 miles of local government bicycle trails in Illinois.

Helping Businesses Recovering from Pandemic
New legislation has been filed aimed at providing a boost to still-struggling businesses by expanding the state’s Business Interruption Grant (BIG) Program. I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation.

Filed by State Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg), Senate Bill 1615 would allocate 25 percent of future federal COVID-19 relief funds received by the state to the BIG Program to provide economic relief to small businesses that experienced losses due to the ongoing pandemic.

The BIG Program was implemented in two rounds, with approximately $580 million allocated to the program. Funding was evenly split between childcare providers and every other kind of business.

For the business grant portion, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) reported more than 40,000 applications but only awarded grants to approximately 9,000 of the applicants, leaving the vast majority (79 percent) without assistance.

McHenry County food establishment permit fees cut in half
Earlier this week the McHenry County Board of Health voted to reduce all health permit fees for food establishments by 50%. The fee reduction will cover the May 1, 2021 – April 30, 2022 permit year, and applies to all food establishment categories, including fixed establishments, mobile food units, and temporary events. The fee reduction is in response to losses and other hardships these businesses have endured due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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