Week in Review: Covid-19, redistricting, natural disasters & more


All Illinois residents required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. On Thursday, Governor JB Pritzker announced a statewide indoor mask mandate for all Illinois residents, regardless of vaccination status, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates continue to increase. The masking requirements are effective Monday, August 30th.

Governor Pritzker also announced vaccination requirements for individuals in high risk settings. All healthcare workers, including nursing home employees, all pre-k-12 teachers and staff, as well as higher education personnel and students will now be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Employees in all of these settings and higher education students who are unable or unwilling to receive the vaccine will be required to get tested for COVID-19 at least once per week, and IDPH and ISBE may require increased testing in certain situations.  
The public health requirements come as regions with low vaccination rates continue to see a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations. In IDPH region 5, Southern Illinois, with the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 44 percent, only 3% of ICU beds are available as the region experiences the highest case rate in the state. Since August 1st, local health departments across the state have reported 27 COVID-19 outbreaks at schools and currently hundreds of schools are being monitored for potential COVID-19 exposures.

Executive Order 2021-20 (COVID-19 EO Number 87), issued by Governor Pritzker on Thursday, August 26, implements the indoor mask mandate and vaccination requirements. Once again, the Governor has acted unilaterally to exercise his emergency management powers, without the advice and consent of the Illinois General Assembly.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin immediately sent a letter to Governor Pritzker, imploring him to use his authority to call a special session of the General Assembly to address this very critical issue. Leader Durkin reiterated his plea to the Governor to make state experts available to the General Assembly “so that we can examine their data and plans, review the results of your many previous mandates and together plot a course of action that will work.”

Democrats call for special session on partisan redistricting maps. The call came as a federal appellate court responded with great skepticism to claims by Illinois Democrats that a partisan, pre-Census redistricting map passed in May meets federal requirements for constitutionality. Under federal case law, all electoral districts – including districts for members of the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate – have to be substantially equal in residential population, aka “One Person, One Vote.” Furthermore, these districts must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, a statute that enumerates several identity groups for districting scrutiny. Any map drawn to represent a population that has a substantial number of African-Americans or Hispanics, must prioritize the representation of these groups.

Responding to evidence presented by a group of plaintiffs that includes House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, the judges responded that the defendants (the Democrats) must present “for the Court’s consideration a plan that satisfies all constitutional and statutory obligations.” This language was seen by election-law attorneys as a signal that the defendants, at a minimum, will have to rip up big chunks of their old map and draw another one. Failure to do this could lead to a decision in federal court that the current process (not just the specific map under review) is being applied in a manner that is unconstitutional. Similar decisions in other states have led to mapmaking by a special master appointed by a federal court on a non-partisan basis. The federal judicial response was posted on Monday, August 23. The General Assembly special session is scheduled to be held on Tuesday, August 31.

Redistricting hearings begin without a new map to review. On Thursday, the Illinois House and Senate held a joint redistricting committee hearing in Chicago, kicking off a series of hearings to be held over the weekend leading up to Tuesday’s special session of the General Assembly in Springfield.

Representative Tim Butler, Republican Spokesperson on the House Redistricting Committee, called out the Democrats’ redistricting process for violating the State constitution and for continuing the charade of so-called “public input” at these hastily scheduled hearings. At this time, the Democrats have not produced a revised map for the public’s review and input. It is highly likely that the supermajority Democrats will drop their revised legislative map at the last second prior to Tuesday’s special session, leaving rank-and-file legislators and advocacy groups with little time to review the new map before a final vote is taken.

Flooding in Gibson City draws disaster relief. Representative Tom Bennett worked with other local leaders this week to chair a public-relief meeting to brief the people of southwestern Ford County and its largest town, Gibson City, after a historic cloudburst led to severe flooding. Over an 18-hour period on Thursday, August 12, up to 11.4 inches of rain fell on the Gibson City area.

Rep. Bennett and State Sen. Jason Barickman announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration (USSBA) would begin taking applications for emergency low-interest refinancing. Eligible are small businesses physically damaged by the disaster, small businesses indirectly damaged by continued operating expenses despite the disaster, and renters and homeowners affected by the disaster. The USSBA opened a Disaster Loan Outreach Center at the Gibson City Fire Department station on Thursday, August 26, and announced the site would remain open for two weeks until Tuesday, September 9.

Du Quoin State Fair August 27 – September 6. After the Illinois State Fair in Springfield concluded on August 22, attention shifted to the Southern Illinois town of Du Quoin, where the State’s end-of-summer fair is held during the week prior to Labor Day. The Du Quoin State Fair will feature entertainment, competitive events, festival food, souvenir vendors, farm showings, harness racing, auto racing, and a rodeo. The Fairgrounds will open every day 2:00 p.m. (10:00 a.m. on weekends and on Labor Day). The 2021 Du Quoin Fair marks the resumption of this festival after it was canceled in 2020. Face masks and pandemic social-distancing rules will be required, and enforced in a wide variety of spaces.

“Henry’s Law” for expectant mothers in third trimester to obtain free parking placard signed into law. Governor JB Pritzker signed legislation into law on August 20 introduced and passed by Assistant House Minority Leader Rep. Keith Wheeler, which allows expectant mothers in their third trimester to obtain a free placard for their vehicle valid for 90 days permitting them to park in handicap-designated spots throughout Illinois. The legislation is House Bill 3027.

Under the law, women with a valid Illinois driver’s license who show documentation that they have entered the third trimester of their pregnancy are be able to receive a temporary parking placard at no charge, similar to those provided to disabled persons, by visiting any of the more than 130 Driver Services facilities across Illinois operated by the Secretary of State.

“This law will help protect all our working moms and their babies-to-be, especially during those harsh winter months when snow and ice heighten the risk for women walking from their car to go into work, to go shopping for their families, or to visit their doctor,” Representative Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the inspiration for this new law, baby Henry Marcum of Aurora, his mother went into preterm labor at 21 weeks when he was born in November of 2019 and was only with us for about 60 minutes before he passed. This new law is a great way to honor his memory and to demonstrate that a life that only lasted one hour can make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of moms and babies across our state.”

House Bill 3027 was approved by the State Senate 59-0 on May 23 following passage in the House of Representatives by a vote of 111-0 on April 23. The bill had over 50 co-sponsors including Democrats and Republicans from every region of Illinois.

Firehouse closure studies. Many Illinois families depend on first-responder infrastructure, including the presence of a firehouse or fire station not far away. The closer the station, the shorter the period of time needed to respond to an urgent call at a time when every second counts. It is troubling news when a fire district contemplates closing a firehouse to “save money.” Because of concerns like these, Rep. Dan Swanson sponsored HB 3763, a new law to slow down and discourage fire stations from closing.

The new law says that, before any fire district takes steps to dissolve itself and merge into another district, or to close a fire station, the firefighting force with jurisdictional responsibility must conduct a response-time study. The study must look at the response times that are required to respond to a fire call from any location within the affected area, and how much these times would be slowed if a fire station were to be closed. After the House unanimously passed HB 3763 earlier in 2021, the bill became law on Tuesday, August 24 as Public Act 102-574.

Unemployment rates down, jobs up in most metro areas. The number of nonfarm jobs increased over-the-year in thirteen of the fourteen Illinois metropolitan areas in July according to preliminary data released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES). The unemployment rate decreased over-the-year in all metro areas.

The number of nonfarm jobs increased in thirteen Illinois metropolitan area and was unchanged in one; the Rockford MSA saw no change in total nonfarm jobs. The metro areas which had the largest over-the-year percentage increases in total nonfarm jobs were the Davenport-Moline-Rock Island IA-IL MSA (+4.4%, +7,500), the Chicago Metro Division (+4.3%, +148,800) and the Peoria MSA (+4.3%, +6,800). The industries that saw job growth in a majority of metro areas included: Leisure & Hospitality (fourteen areas); Transportation, Warehousing & Public Utilities, Other Services and Government (eleven areas each); Mining & Construction, Manufacturing, Wholesale Trade, Professional & Business Services and Educational & Health Services (nine areas each).

Over-the-year, the unemployment rate decreased in all 14 metropolitan areas; the metro areas with the largest unemployment rate decreases were the Rockford MSA (-7.3 points to 8.7%), the Elgin Metro Division (-6.6 points to 5.6%) and the Decatur MSA (-6.2 points to 7.5%). The Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights Metropolitan Division unemployment rate fell -5.3 points to 8.0%.

Limited reopening of state unemployment offices. State Representative Joe Sosnowski issued the following statement in response to this week’s announcement from the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) that the agency plans a partial, limited reopening of a select number of regional offices for in-person services.

“This is a small step that is sadly too little, too late for many displaced workers and families here in the Stateline and across our state. When Illinois residents needed help the most, these offices were closed. This limited reopening comes nearly 14 months after the Secretary of State re-opened their facilities after the initial COVID shutdown. Even now, it is outrageous that IDES are only opening a few of their offices. It is a disgrace how poor customer service is at IDES.”

Representative Sosnowski filed HR 226 in April calling upon IDES to make an immediate public commitment to reopen their public-access unemployment offices to provide face-to-face help to Illinois residents who urgently need assistance. The Illinois House of Representatives voted to adopt HR 226 on May 29 by a vote of 108-0 with one member voting Present.

Rep. Murphy bill advancing student safety signed into law. Legislation filed by State Representative Mike Murphy to improve school bus safety has been signed into law by Governor Pritzker. House Bill 2584 establishes a pilot program to allow schools in the state of Illinois to equip their buses with an extended flashing arm attached to a bus stop sign, known as a S.A.F.E. Gate. Research has shown the addition of the extended arm has reduced incidents of motorists ignoring bus stop signs by as much as 95 percent, drastically reducing the risk to school children crossing the road.

“The Federal Department of Transportation estimates that as many as 18 million school bus stop sign violations happen each year,” said Murphy. “Those violations cause far too many deaths and injuries of children that are completely avoidable, but the addition of a S.A.F.E. Gate extended stop arm is a simple solution to help improve visibility and protect children. As a grandparent, I’m proud to be the sponsor of legislation that gives our schools access to an easy tool to keep all our kids and grandkids safe.”

The S.A.F.E. Gate works by adding a four-foot-long fiberglass or aluminum arm equipped with flashing lights and additional reflective material to the foldout stop signs on a school bus. The addition of the extended arm has the effect of improving visibility up to a mile away, but more importantly, causes motorists to treat it more like a railroad crossing arm and deters drivers from ignoring the legal requirement to stop when buses are dropping off and picking up children.

While S.A.F.E. Gates are actually manufactured here in Springfield by SAFE BusGates and have federal approval, the strict regulations for school bus equipment in Illinois required legislation before schools could have the option to use them. Once the Illinois Department of Transportation establishes the pilot program created under Murphy’s legislation, Illinois schools will have the ability to improve the safety of their buses through this simple, yet potentially life-saving piece of equipment. Murphy also noted it is not a mandate; school districts retain local control.