Week in Review: COVID-19, Jobs, budget & more

Gov. Pritzker Announces Extension of Stay at Home Order, Suspension of On-Site Learning in Schools Through April. Building on the state's efforts to flatten the curve of new COVID-19 cases in Illinois and following careful consultation with experts in Illinois and across the nation, Governor JB Pritzker announced that he would sign a 30-day extension of the state's disaster proclamation on April 1. The disaster proclamation provides the governor the authority to sign additional executive orders, extending the Stay at Home order and suspending on-site learning in K-12 schools through the month of April. The April 30 reset date was included in the Governor’s Executive Order 2020-18.

"I have let the science guide our decisions and I've relied upon the top medical experts, scientists, public health researchers, epidemiologists, mathematicians and modelers, from the greatest institutions in the world whose guidance on infection rates and potential mortalities and protective measures is second to none," said Governor Pritzker. "Illinois has one of the strongest public health systems in the nation - but even so, we aren't immune to this virus' ability to push our existing capacity beyond its limit. We need to maintain our course and keep working to flatten the curve."

On March 20, the Governor announced a Stay at Home order after consulting with medical experts, scientists, public health researchers, epidemiologists, mathematicians and modelers to understand the progression of COVID-19 and the measures needed to flatten the curve.

The extension of the Stay at Home order will continue to permit a range of essential activities that will allow Illinoisans to meet their necessities while maintaining social distance from others. Grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies and other businesses providing services deemed essential will not close.

Staying at home and social distancing are the paramount strategies for minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Every Illinoisan plays a role in ensuring our health care system remains fully operational to treat patients in need of urgent care.

As of March 30, preliminary reports from hospitals statewide show that 41 percent of our adult ICU beds are "empty", which means they are staffed and ready for immediate patient use, a two-percentage point decrease in a week. As far as ventilators, 68% are available statewide across Illinois, a four-percentage point drop in a week.

Statewide, about 35 percent of our total ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients and about 24 percent of our total ventilators are occupied by COVID patients. The state remains within its capacity, and is working every day to increase its capacity to prepare for an anticipated surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

Those experiencing symptoms should call a health care provider who will help arrange medical treatment without putting others at risk of exposure. The Illinois Department of Public Health has a statewide COVID-19 hotline and website to answer any questions from the public or to report a suspected case: call 1-800-889-3931 or visit IDPH.illinois.gov.

On March 13, the Governor announced a temporary statewide closure of all K-12 schools to minimize spread of COVID-19 across communities. Child care providers who have been licensed to operate to provide care to the children of essential workers will remain open.

Schools will transition from Act of God Days to Remote Learning Days, with days counting toward the school year. Each school district will create and implement a Remote Learning Day Plan to ensure all students, including students with disabilities and English Learners, receive instructional materials and can communicate with their teachers.

To prepare, the Illinois School Board of Education (ISBE) assembled an advisory group of more than 60 educators to make recommendations about instruction and grading during remote learning.

Schools can use up to five Remote Learning Planning Days at any time to prepare and refine their approaches to remote learning. Schools will design plans to minimize instructional loss and to provide opportunities for students' academic, linguistic, and social-emotional growth.

Remote learning will look different for every district and every school. School districts will create plans based on their local resources and needs. Most districts will use a mix of digital and non-digital methods of engaging students in learning.

As a part of their recommendations, the advisory group recommended that grades be used only to increase students' academic standing with a recommendation that any grades that schools give during this time be used as an opportunity for feedback and not an instrument for compliance.

ISBE will continue to work in partnership with school districts to address any questions and to provide guidance to educators and administrators to protect and support Illinois students.

Illinois schools have worked diligently to meet the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic with generosity, creativity, and a resolute focus on caring for students and communities. Schools across Illinois have shown remarkable agility in providing learning opportunities and meals throughout this crisis and will continue to work to address students' needs.

As of Tuesday, March 31, 41 of the 50 U.S. states have implemented some form of nonessential business closure order. Under these orders, nonessential businesses are supposed to cease their operations, or transform them into a work-from-home setting. In most states including Illinois, there is a significant list of exceptions: the exceptions include health care, food retail, gas stations, home delivery services, and work done in outdoor environments such as construction.

The State of Illinois has posted a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the Stay-at-Home order. The FAQ list includes a brief description of who is an “essential worker” under the Order.

The nonessential-business-shutdown order system is now the shared experience of most of the states of the central U.S. Four of the five states that border Illinois – Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and Wisconsin – have posted nonessential-business-shutdown orders. In addition, many units of local government in and around St. Louis have posted similar orders with respect to their jurisdictions within Missouri.

IDPH reports 8,904 COVID-19 cases in Illinois, including 210 deaths. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reported its latest case totals on Friday, April 3. Statewide, there are 8,904 positive tests confirmed with 48,408 total persons tested. Cases have been reported in 64 counties across Illinois. The age of cases ranges from younger than one to older than 100 years. Confirmed cases have nearly tripled in the past week, up from 3,026 cases on March 27.

For all personal protective equipment (PPE) donations, email PPE.donations@illinois.gov. For health questions about COVID-19, call the hotline at 1-800-889-3931 or email dph.sick@illinois.gov.

For more information, please visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or ilcovid19info.com.

Additional hospital space. Illinois and local health authorities are refitting additional spaces throughout the Chicago area to serve as supplemental hospital bed capacity if need be. Space at McCormick Place, which usually serves as a convention center, has the capacity to be built out to 3,000 bed spaces. Additional field hospital facilities are being set up in Elgin, Blue Island, and Melrose Park. In some cases, such as Blue Island, these field hospitals will reopen closed hospital buildings and will be able to use space designed for patient care. These temporary hospital facilities will be oriented towards the continued care and treatment of patients with lower-acuity, non-life threatening conditions. They are meant to supplement, not replace, the existing acute-care facilities of the Greater Chicago area.

Licensure orders and Illinoishelps.net. Now that coronavirus has hit Illinois, one of the points of action is the supply of essential healthcare professionals. Physicians and nurses are needed to take care of the sick. Illinois has taken a series of actions to increase the number of front-line medical personnel. Two wide groups of actions are: (a) to encourage retired, previously licensed personnel, if healthy, to temporarily return to their vocations; and (b) to speed up the ability of workers who have completed most of their healthcare training to practice in the field. As one facet of this program, Illinois is granting temporary nursing licenses to nursing students who have already received significant training in general-care nursing.

As another facet of this program, the Illinois Emergency management Agency (IEMA) has implemented the use of the State’s emergency broadcast system, the operation that sends emergency text messages to cell phones throughout the state. These messages can be sent to warn residents of weather hazards, or to post an Amber Alert to inform us of a missing or endangered child. On Tuesday, March 31, an alert was sent out to Illinoisans to urge inactive licensed health care workers to return to service.

The Illinois volunteer healthcare system at Illinoishelps.net specializes in the deployment of currently licensed personnel. Medical professionals that sign up may be contacted and asked to work in a hospital or alternative residential healthcare setting.

Illinois National Guard called out. Many members of the National Guard are trained in field health care logistics. It is a key element of their longstanding role as disaster first responders and as reserve trainees ready for global field combat. Gov. Pritzker has called up units of the Illinois National Guard to work with challenges of logistics support and medical staffing, and President Trump has cooperated with this call-up. On Monday, March 30, this cooperative agreement was sealed by a 30-day order, signed by Trump, which declared the Illinois National Guards members called up for this purpose to be essential Homeland Security personnel who would be paid by the federal government. As of March 30, this agreement covered the field services of 380 men and women of the Illinois National Guard.

Downstate and rural hospitals. Illinois’ network of smaller acute-care bed space providers is undergoing unusual stress during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, health care cost challenges have weighed upon every provider organization.

Illinois and the federal government have taken actions to help Illinois’ smaller hospitals and healthcare clinics. Elements of the federal CARES Act, enacted by Congress in late March, will speed up Medicare payments to hospitals. Many hospitals and health care clinics will be eligible for the emergency small-business loans that are now being offered to employers who retain their workforce. Many routine healthcare needs can now be met through telemedicine, reducing face-to-face burdens on both patients and their providers. Telemedicine is especially valuable in rural areas with long driving distances to healthcare facilities.

CGFA March 2020 report. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) issued its March 2020 report showing that good cash flow was coming into Illinois state government during the final weeks prior to the COVID-19 stay-at-home shutdown. The two largest sources of State general revenue, income taxes and sales taxes, showed healthy cash flow during the month that ended on March 31. Personal income tax revenues were up by $188 million over the prior-year March figure, up almost 9%, signaling healthy hiring and tax payments automatically withdrawn from worker paychecks. Sales tax revenues were up $19 million, almost 3%, signaling healthy retail sales at online and bricks-and-mortar shops.

The full CGFA report includes narrative commentary on the negative effects that will be imposed upon State revenues in April and following months as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Many Americans have been laid off, with 10 million unemployment claims filed during the final two weeks of March. This will affect State income tax and sales tax receipts. Smaller but significant sources of revenue are being affected or, as in the case of gambling tax revenues earned at riverboat casinos, entirely cut off. Income from federal aid is increasing sharply, but not enough to make up for the lost tax revenue. House Republicans will be working closely with CGFA staff in the coming days to get greater clarity on the new revenue picture facing the State.

Capital spending annual analysis. CGFA also monitors the State’s capital spending and infrastructure investment plans. The monitoring centers on a looking-forward analysis of the capital spending expected to be carried out in the approaching year. This is not an annual report of completed spending, but an analysis of the spending expected to be done in the near future.

The CGFA FY 2021 Capital Plan and Analysis looks at the second year of the Rebuild Illinois capital improvement program. Weighed down by many years of disinvestment, Illinois’ infrastructure was in such poor shape that its condition was starting to damage the value of Illinois private-sector real property. Crumbling bridges could not hold up Class 8 freight-truck traffic, and old school buildings were no longer educating students for the employment opportunities of the 21st century.

The needs set forth in this spending program remain, but major changes are expected to be made in the FY21 implementation of this Capital Plan. Overall conditions are leading to sharp changes in economic activity in Illinois and worldwide. These changes are reducing the cash flows used to pay for the spending categories laid out in this analysis. In particular, changes in Illinois work and employment are leading to sharp changes in the consumption of motor fuel, including the collection of motor fuel taxes – a category of State revenue that backs up a large portion of this spending program.

CARES Act and other aid programs. The federal government is actively stepping in to help Illinois employees, employers, and small businesses. One of the key elements in the federal CARES Act, passed unanimously by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, is the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program. This program will provide bridge financing to eligible small businesses and nonprofits. One element of the eligibility will be an agreement by the employer to retain his or her employees on payroll. The goal of this program is to keep money flowing through employers to employees so that American workers can continue to meet their obligations, pay their bills, and buy essential supplies for themselves and their families.

The Paycheck Protection Program is overseen by the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA), which already knows how to oversee money lent to small businesses throughout the U.S. The actual transactions will be signed by local businesses/nonprofits and their community-based financial advisors. The Paycheck Protection Program is different from a separate disaster-loan program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. SBA disaster loans are targeted towards employers who have been affected by a natural disaster such as COVID-19. For some employers, it may not be possible to benefit from both programs.

After 174 years, Jacksonville-based MacMurray College to close. The private college, which has offered a four-year liberal arts education to students from all over the world, was founded in 1846 – the year a local Central Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, was elected to Congress. As of spring 2020, the college has more than 500 full-time students, who will be given opportunities to transfer to other colleges and universities. MacMurray College also employs the full-time-equivalent of 101 faculty members and staff, who will be given notices of termination.

In a press release explaining the decision, MacMurray College’s board of trustees explained that the college had faced serious and growing financial pressures that, by spring 2020, offered no path forward. The threats to the college’s survival preceded the current COVID-19 epidemic that has closed the campus. The College’s final president, Dr. Beverly Rodgers, expressed hope that conditions can improve enough for the College to hold a commencement ceremony for the graduating Class of 2020.

Dr. Rodgers told students that arrangements are being made to open transfer windows for former MacMurray scholars at seven Central Illinois private colleges. The colleges that have each offered to welcome some former MacMurray students are Blackburn College, Eureka College, Greenville University, Illinois College, McKendree University, Milliken University, and Monmouth College.

Illinois unemployment claims and other relief efforts. The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) is trying to take claims for unemployment insurance (UI) during this time of social and economic challenge. While many individual personnel within the Department are doing their best, the overall realities of the situation are drawing significant criticism from many advocates for Illinois workers and citizens, including Illinois House Republicans.

One of the biggest challenges this week is the creation of a pathway for corporate contractors to apply for, and get, the needed benefits which they deserve. These are benefits awarded in March 2019, on a one-time basis, to corporate contractors – the class of workers often called “gig economy” workers – if they have been advised to cease offering their services. Many facets of the gig economy, such as car-hire firm Uber, have been devastated by current conditions. In response to this package of realities, Congress passed and President Trump signed the CARES Act in late March. This new federal law directs the fifty states, including Illinois, to rapidly develop a pathway for gig-economy workers to prove up their identities online and apply for CARES Act unemployment. However, as of Wednesday, April 1, IDES had not yet set up a gig-economy online application platform for corporate contractual workers. Unemployed Illinois workers have little recourse but to apply online for UI, as the IDES’s face-to-face offices have closed are now the public. House Republicans redoubled their call upon IDES to deal with the massive wave of problems facing the IDES UI application process and website.

In addition, House Republicans are deeply concerned about the potential pressure on unemployment insurance contribution rates that will be imposed by the current UI system upon employers who have been forced to lay off employees during the duration of the current stay-at-home order. In its fact sheet posted as of Wednesday, April 1, IDES was not able to provide assurances to the Illinois public that there would be a gig-economy UI application platform available at any point soon, or that the current situation could be modified so as to grant employer contribution relief.

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