Big-city Illinois mayors suggest regional approach to loosening COVID-19 restrictions
The mayors of six of Illinois' largest cities are as eager as anyone to see life return to normal, with shops, restaurants and other "nonessential" businesses open again.
But they all acknowledged Wednesday that, due to differences in how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting different areas of the state, a decision to loosen restrictions might best be made on a regional basis.
The mayors of Aurora, Springfield, Rockford, Joliet, Champaign and Waukegan spoke during an online meeting hosted by Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.
"The situation downstate is different from in the Chicago metro area. That (a regional approach) might be the way forward," Joliet Mayor Robert O'Dekirk said, noting the lesser prevalence of COVID-19 cases downstate.
Springfield Mayor James Langfelder said small retailers, such as florists and barbershops, possibly could be allowed to reopen, with rules about social distancing and wearing protective gear.
Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham suggested guidelines could be developed for limiting occupancy based on the square-footage of buildings.
Irvin said that without a vaccine or medications to treat COVID-19, "People aren't going to be rushing back to the casinos, people aren't going to be rushing back to the theater to sit two inches next to each other."
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said there needs to be a "proper amount" of personal protective equipment available for essential workers, more testing, and "a virtual army of contact tracers" before loosening restrictions.
He also said the governor's closure orders unintentionally benefited larger corporations. He sent a letter to the governor last week, urging him to allow small nonessential businesses to open for curbside pickup of their wares or to require big-box stores to close the parts of their stores that sell nonessential items, including shoes and clothing.
"If our restaurants can be curbside, so can some of these local retailers," he said.
O'Dekirk spoke of a special challenge his city faced at the outset: Nearby Stateville Correctional Center was sending all its COVID-19 patients to one hospital in Joliet -- AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center -- per its policy of sending sick prisoners to the closest hospital. "St. Joe's was in danger of being overrun," O'Dekirk said.
But the state quickly agreed with city officials' request to balance the patient load, and sent a National Guard unit to open a medical facility at the prison.
The mayors talked about how business closings are blowing huge holes in their budgets -- and delays in receiving income and property tax payments will exacerbate the problem. O'Dekirk said Joliet is on track to receive 70% less revenue than it budgeted -- and is missing out on about $300,000 a week in taxes from its two riverboat casinos. Joliet is using reserve funds to maintain city services and may borrow money from its water utility fund, he said.
"You can't cut your way out of that," O'Dekirk said.
Waukegan's Cunningham cautioned against acting prematurely.
"We cannot open up and then close back down. That is not going to be acceptable by any of us," he said.