Week in Review: Covid-19, emergency rules, ethics & more

Pritzker’s emergency rule would impose criminal penalties on businesses that fail to enforce facemask requirement. Gov. Pritzker has ordered that all Illinois residents wear facemasks in indoor public spaces, as well as outdoor public spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained. Limited exceptions exist for persons who are indoors in places where facial coverings cannot be worn, such as restaurants and dentists’ offices.
Until now, there has not been criminal penalties imposed on businesses, such as shops and stores that fail to enforce the orders. On Friday, August 7, Gov. Pritzker announced that this would change. A new emergency rule from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) directs local health enforcers – police officers, health departments, and parallel offices – to send out written warnings and sanction letters to businesses that are violating the COVID-19 facial covering emergency public health orders. The letters will state that failure to comply with the orders could result in the recipient being charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

A business entity found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor may be sentenced to pay a fine of up to $2,500. Furthermore, should a small business be charged with multiple violations of the facial-covering orders, multiple fines could be imposed. Many questions have been raised about the wording of the new rule and the policy behind it. Among other concerns, this rule grants what appear to be police powers – the power to refer criminal charges – to local health officials who do not have training in law enforcement. These IDPH rules will have to go before the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) for scrutiny. JCAR is scheduled to meet in Springfield on Tuesday, August 11.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin Calls On Governor Pritzker to Convene Special Session on Emergency Rules, Ethics Reform. Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin released the following statement regarding Governor Pritzker’s proposal of new emergency rules regarding mask wearing:

“Today, I am calling on Governor Pritzker to abandon his ‘mask rule’ and work with the legislature on this issue. I am committed to respecting his priorities while recognizing the undue hardship his current rule places on businesses that are already struggling across Illinois. To do this, the Governor should immediately call the legislature into special session where we can also address the urgent need for ethics reform and the controversies surrounding the Democratic Party and Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.”

Continued coronavirus diagnoses in Illinois. Many Illinoisans continued to fall ill with COVID-19, based on new testing numbers released daily this week by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). More than 40,000 coronavirus tests are administered to Illinoisans every day – approximately one for every 300 Illinois residents – and about 4% of them come back positive, creating daily statewide positive diagnosis numbers between 1,500 per day and 2,000 per day. The State’s average daily COVID-19 caseload has more than doubled over the past 30 days, signaling the continued virulence of this contagious virus. On the other hand, the daily fatality numbers are about 1% of the positive case count, signaling that the great majority of persons who test positive for this disease will recover.

IDPH continues to recommend that Illinois residents practice aggressive social distancing and, when in public, wear facial coverings. In addition, many Illinois businesses, such as supermarkets and grocery stores, require shoppers to use facial coverings. Major restrictions continue to be in place on contacts between patients in hospitals and their friends/families, and between residents of long-term-care facilities and their friends/families. Nationwide mortality statistics continue to show that the coronavirus has a severe impact on senior citizens and individuals with pre-existing conditions.

The IDPH summary of death certificates related to COVID-19 continues to show that a majority of the people who pass away from this disease are over the age of 70. Persons of all ages are, however, at risk from this virus, both as patients and as persons who can spread the virus to others. The coronavirus continues to exact a heavy toll on Illinois workplaces, schools and universities, and sporting events. Hundreds of thousands of Illinois workers continue to be unemployed, and many Illinois youth sporting events have been cancelled.

Budget numbers show unusual positive “bump” in July 2020. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA), the budget-forecasting arm of the Illinois General Assembly, compiled Illinois’ state cash flow numbers for the first month of Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21). These July 2020 numbers include income taxes paid upon filing by many Illinois tax residents, who utilized the one-time-only extension granted by state and federal law to file on July 15, 2020 rather than April 15, 2020.

The Illinois Department of Revenue (IDOR) has reported to CGFA that Illinois taxpayers paid more than $2.7 billion to the State in personal income tax in July 2020, an increase of more than $1.1 billion (+75.3%) over July 2019. The great majority of this increase was due to the altered filing deadline. A similar “bump” in July 2020 corporate income tax payments generated net new FY21 revenue of more than $300 million. These revenue increases will support our cash-strapped State as it faces massive new spending needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overall Illinois budget picture continues to be badly hurt by the overall worldwide economic situation. Illinois is currently experiencing double-digit unemployment, with the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) reporting 14.6% joblessness in June 2020 after seasonal adjustments. July 2020 sales tax receipts were down as out-of-work Illinoisans changed their spending patterns. The temporary positive numbers shown in July 2020 are projected to turn negative in future months.

Parents asking about 2020 fall term. With the coronavirus continuing to be a public health crisis, many parents of school students are asking about their school systems’ plans for in-person and remote education in fall 2020. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) continues to support the decisions of many school districts to offer in-person, in-school learning to their pupils. Many schools are changing their class schedules to stagger the periods of time that students would be mingling in school halls and corridors, and preparing to continually clean and sanitize classroom spaces. These are only part of the extensive family of guidelines being provided by ISBE to school districts throughout Illinois.

Some Illinois public school districts are finding that the challenge of COVID-19 means that they need to look at continuing the programs of online education that many of them practiced in the 2019-20 spring term. This week, Illinois’ largest public school district announced plans for all-online education to kick off the 2020 fall term in Chicago. Many school districts are moving towards blended educational opportunities that will involve both online education and some continuing opportunities for relatively safe in-person learning. Parents and guardians should contact their school districts for case-by-case guidance on local plans and updates. The ISBE Fall 2020 guidelines include protocols for public school blended learning and remote learning.

Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) announces layoffs. HSHS, an affiliation of historically Catholic hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin, announced plans this week to terminate approximately 10% of its workforce. Many of the employees laid off had previously been on furlough. HSHS’s clinical care group includes St. Mary’s hospital in Decatur, St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, seven smaller hospitals in southern and central Illinois, and outpatient clinics and care centers affiliated with these hospitals. HSHS has said that the majority of those being let go were in job roles that did not include direct hands-on patient care.

The health care sector has been badly hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Illinoisans have been laid off and have lost their employer-provided health care, or have been forced to switch to other health plans that include less intensive collaborative relationships between patients and their health care providers. Some patients who retain their health care coverage have chosen to delay highly remunerated quality-of-life care, such as orthopedic procedures. Many standard revolving procedures, such as invasive cancer screenings, have also been put off. These changes have affected the revenues of many Illinois health care providers. The HSHS announcement, which will affect approximately 1,500 employees, was made on August 4.

Illinois State University (ISU) announces plans for fall 2020. ISU has joined the list of institutions of higher education that will concentrate on distance learning in the first term of the 2020-21 academic year. The Bloomington-Normal-based university announced its decision on Thursday, August 6.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) continues to support Illinois public universities and community colleges that will offer some in-person learning experiences this fall. Their guidelines for safe operation of on-campus learning were updated on July 28, 2020.

Rental, mortgage assistance available to Illinois residents impacted by COVID-19. The Illinois Housing Development Authority (IDHA) is offering rental and mortgage assistance to eligible residents impacted by COVID-19.

The Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program will provide renters impacted by COVID-19 $5,000 for back rent and prepay through 2020, or until funds are exhausted. If approved, payment will be wired directly to the landlord within 10 business days; or 15-20 days if by paper check. IHDA will accept applications for rental assistance August 10 through August 21.

The Emergency Mortgage Assistance (EMA) program will provide homeowners impacted by COVID-19 up to $15,000 to reinstate their mortgage and prepay through 2020 or until funds are exhausted. If approved, payment will be sent directly to the mortgage servicer approximately 7-10 days after the homeowner signs the Promissory Note. A second payment will occur up to one month after the first payment. IHDA will accept applications for mortgage assistance August 24 through September 4.

If interested in applying for rental or mortgage assistance, please visit https://era.ihda.org/ for additional information on eligibility criteria.

Teachers Retirement System (TRS) executive director resigns abruptly. The day-to-day manager of the largest of Illinois’ troubled State-managed pension systems left his post this week. The resignation of Richard Ingram, who had been the manager of a pension program with $53.3 billion in assets, was effective immediately.

Ingram’s departure came after an event that had surprised many observers of America’s largest pension systems. The TRS board of trustees, meeting on Friday, July 31, had voted to place Ingram on administrative leave. Stating that Ingram’s tenure was being scrutinized because of “performance issues covered by his employment contract,” the trustees did not further explain the actions being taken with respect to the pension fund’s executive director.

Public disclosures filed by TRS have clarified the overall financial situation faced by the teachers’ pension fund. Although TRS’s fund managers have $53.3 billion in assets under management, the accrued actuarial liabilities currently borne by the system is $134.4 billion, meaning that TRS has a funded ratio of only 40.6% and is bearing a burden of $81.1 billion in unfunded liabilities. This is the largest single quantity of unfunded liability borne by any of the State’s five managed pension systems, and an indication of the challenges currently faced by TRS.

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