Bars and restaurants can serve outdoors as soon as May 29; golf, other restrictions to ease

Restaurants and bars, dealt a huge economic hit by COVID-19, can offer outdoor dining as soon as May 29, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday as state lawmakers convened to address the budget crisis caused by the respiratory disease.

The news came at a briefing where officials announced cases of COVID-19 in Illinois surpassed 100,000, but epidemiologists believe "summer offers opportunities if proper precautions are taken," Pritzker said.

"It was important to me to open them, but only if we could keep employees and customers safe," he said.

Precautions involve placing tables 6 feet apart and away from the sidewalk, and face masks being used by servers and customers when not eating or drinking.

"It provides a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel," a relieved Illinois Restaurant Association CEO Sam Toia said. Sales are down by 70% to 80% with 321,000 restaurant workers laid off due to COVID-19, he said.

Restaurants and bars previously were restricted to pickup and delivery service until the state reached Phase 4 of a five-phase, four-region reopening plan.

The state is on track to reach Phase 3, with an easing of stay-at-home restrictions, on May 29. Illinois Department of Public Health Executive Director Ngozi Ezike reported 3,914 Illinoisans hospitalized with the virus - "the lowest number since we've been capturing these numbers."

In the 24 hours leading up to Wednesday's news conference, 147 additional Illinoisans died from the virus compared to the two-week average of 112. There were 2,388 new cases, slightly higher than the 14-day average of 2,264. The total deaths are 4,525, with 100,418 cases statewide.

Pritzker also announced more easing of Phase 3 requirements. All state parks will open as soon as May 29 as well as concessions, with social distancing rules applying. Boating and camping with up to 10 people in a group will be permitted.

Also now in Phase 3, golf courses can allow foursomes out on the same tee times. Carts will also be permitted with one person per cart, or one immediate household per cart. And guidelines are being developed for driving ranges, outdoor shooting ranges and outdoor paintball courses to open, he said.

Wednesday marked the first time the General Assembly has met since early March, with some Republican lawmakers spoiling for a fight over Pritzker's reopening plan and a controversial executive rule enacted last week. It enables police to charge businesses that flout the stay-at-home order with a Class A misdemeanor, which could mean a fine of up to $2,500 and jail time.

But earlier Wednesday, Pritzker withdrew the rule and punted it to the General Assembly, which will take up legislation this week that allows police to issue citations with a financial penalty and no jail for scofflaws.

"We look to do it with a soft touch," said Democratic Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, who will spearhead the policy.

Republican Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said: "This is an important win in the fight for people's rights during this pandemic. This is clear proof that when we call out governmental overreach, we can win."

Illinois State Police Brendon Kelly Director said state and local police are coping with "probably the most difficult public policy problem that law enforcement has faced, certainly in our lifetimes - balancing the need for public health and public safety as well as need for personal rights and personal concerns and the ability for people to live their lives."

He noted that "it has been the governor's intent and direction that from Day 1 no one be arrested, no one be taken to jail."

Some drama occurred as the Illinois House met in the Bank of Springfield Center when Rep. Darren Bailey of downstate Xenia refused to wear a mask as required and was removed after a vote.

The gesture "shows a callous disregard for life," said Pritzker, who has ordered Illinoisans wear masks in public settings.

May 20 COVID-19 cases per county; search by ZIP code

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As protesters chant "Open Illinois," Dan Haifley of Mattoon, center, prays in front of the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield as the Illinois House of Representatives prepared to conduct their spring session there Wednesday. Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via Associated Press
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