SPRINGFIELD – If hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to decline for the rest of the month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker plans to lift his executive order that mandates face coverings indoors by Feb. 28. The plan does not apply to schools.
It’s unclear what level of rise in hospitalizations could lead the state to change its course, but Pritzker and health officials said at an afternoon news conference Wednesday that such a scenario was not out of the question.
Regardless of what happens with hospitalizations, masks will continue to be mandated at schools, on school buses and other public transportation, at nursing homes and congregate living facilities, and at day cares beyond March 1.
“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,” Pritzker said at the news conference in Chicago. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop, for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible and for more parents to get their kids vaccinated.”
People are also reading…
But whether he has the authority to issue such mandates in schools will be a question decided by state courts. The 4th District Court of Appeals is currently considering whether a lower court’s temporary restraining order on the governor’s school mandates pertaining to about 170 school districts will remain in effect.
Pritzker did not state specific metric thresholds would need to be met before school mask mandates could be lifted, but noted he hoped it would be “weeks rather than months” when a decision could be made.
The reason the state was able to get to a place where Pritzker could consider lifting the mandate, he said, is because hospitalizations for COVID-19, which pushed heights of 7,400 cases in mid-January, have fallen by nearly two-thirds, to 2,496 cases as of Tuesday night.
Twenty percent of statewide intensive care unit beds were available as of Tuesday night, up from a low of about 8 percent four weeks ago, Pritzker said.
It’s a faster decline in hospitalizations than at any point in the pandemic, Pritzker said.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said 89% of those hospitalizations are in unvaccinated individuals. Approximately 75% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting Illinois at the top of Midwestern states.
Ezike said lifting the mandate does not signify an end to COVID-19, but the latest in the state’s effort to “coexist with COVID.”
The path forward likely includes masks, vaccines, testing and creating safer settings through better ventilation, she said.
Local jurisdictions and businesses may continue to enforce stricter masking guidelines than outlined by the state.
* * *
SCHOOL MASK MANDATE STAY: Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Gov. Pritzker’s administration are asking a state appellate court to set aside a lower court order from Feb. 4 that invalidated the mask and vaccine mandates that the state imposed last year for public schools.
On Feb. 4, Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow granted a temporary restraining order blocking schools from enforcing those mandates, saying the mitigation rules amounted to a kind of “quarantine” and that the Pritzker administration overstepped its bounds by issuing those mandates through emergency rules.
Beginning in August 2021, Pritzker issued a series of executive orders related to the reopening of public schools. They included a requirement that schools enforce a mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors; that they require all school personnel either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, and that they exclude from school premises for specified periods of time any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 or who has been in close contact with someone who has.
The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education then issued a series of emergency rules to implement the executive orders.
Parents, students and, in some cases, teachers sued roughly 170 school districts across the state seeking to block those mandates. Those cases were eventually consolidated and transferred to Sangamon County.
In her ruling, Grischow said that at the time the emergency rules were issued, the Department of Public Health had known about COVID-19 for well over a year and a half and that vaccines had been around for more than nine months. She then questioned why the rules could not have been developed under the normal process which would have allowed for public comment and legislative review.
She also noted that state law gives the Department of Public Health authority to issue vaccine mandates. But in this case, IDPH did not issue such a mandate, the governor did, and then the State Board of Education issued rules to carry out the governor’s order – something she said was an improper delegation of an executive branch agency’s authority.
She also found that exclusion from school buildings was a form of quarantine, and under state law, people who are ordered quarantined have a right to challenge the order in court and receive due process.
Her order strikes down several provisions of the emergency rules IDPH and ISBE issued in September and specifically restrains the agencies from requiring school districts to enforce mask mandates without a lawful quarantine order from a local health department.
As of Monday afternoon, the 4th District Court of Appeals had not yet ruled on the motion for an emergency stay.
* * *
EXPRESSWAY SHOOTINGS: Pritzker appeared with Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly in Chicago Monday to outline actions taken and arrests made in expressway shootings.
Pritzker and Kelly said more than 20 arrests have been made in recent months related to expressway shootings and crime, including three first-degree murder charges, one involuntary manslaughter, three attempted murders, and other crimes.
While they were in the news conference, however, a shooting occurred on the Dan Ryan expressway, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Kelly said expressway shootings have increased because of the prevalence of cameras – from doorbell cameras to store security systems – almost everywhere else, other than expressways. Putting cameras there can help deter the shootings, he said.
The state has installed 99 cameras with license plate readers on the Dan Ryan expressway in Chicago, where many of the shootings have occurred, with “hundreds more” cameras coming.
In recent weeks, the ISP has worked with the Chicago Police Department, Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies, Pritzker said, leading to the 20 arrests.
Kelly said the agency increased patrol presence on Chicago expressways by over 150% at “peak criminal activity times.” Since October, that has led to nearly 5,000 traffic stops, 132 DUI arrests, 69 firearm recoveries and 133 criminal arrests in the Chicago area.
The Monday news conference touting the Pritzker administration’s approach came as he and Democrats in the General Assembly have faced consistent attacks from Republican lawmakers and political opponents amid the recent rise in violent crime.
Republicans have painted a criminal justice reform bill passed one year ago in January as a contributing factor to rising crime rates. That bill, known as the SAFE-T Act, overhauls police certification, reforms use-of-force standards, improves police accountability and abolishes cash bail beginning in 2023 in favor of a system that prioritizes risk of re-offending over an offender’s ability to afford release.
The GOP has introduced a package of bills looking to create mandatory minimums for certain violent crime offenses and to create a special, $125 million grant fund to beef up officer hiring and retainment efforts.
In recent budgets, Pritzker said his administration has increased funding for ISP officers to retrieve illegally owned guns and to hire new ISP cadets, including 300 in the upcoming fiscal year.
He also touted violence interruption spending, which he’s more than doubled in his tenure, an increase made possible due to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 response funding.
* * *
RETAIL CRIME BILLS: Attorney General Kwame Raoul appeared with the president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association Monday to outline a proposed legislative package taking aim at organized retail crime.
Warning of “criminal rings” and “illicit trade,” Raoul, appearing with IRMA President Rob Karr, differentiated what he referred to as “organized retail crime” and the types of retail theft committed by “ragtag, low-level offenders.”
The legislative package addressing organized retail crime has not yet been drafted. But Raoul and Karr said it will aim to define organized retail crime in law, allowing prosecutors greater leeway to charge those participating in it, while also holding online marketplaces accountable and aiming to provide more state funding to address organized retail crime.
Raoul touted an organized retail crime task force overseen by his office, a public-private collaboration that includes retailers, online marketplaces, law enforcement agencies and state’s attorneys. Its first major bust was announced in early December, when over $1 million of stolen goods were recovered after an unrelated weapons arrest in Chicago.
But law enforcement alone can’t stop organized retail crime, Raoul said. The effort must also include retailers, online retailer platforms and lawmakers.
According to a news release, in the new proposal, prosecutors would be given wider discretion to bring charges regardless of where the crime takes place, meaning if the conspiracy, theft, and selling all occurred in different jurisdictions, each jurisdiction would have the ability to prosecute the entire crime.
The AG would also have the ability to prosecute via a statewide grand jury.
Online third-party sellers would be required to verify the identity of high-volume sellers using bank account numbers, taxpayer IDs or other information, and to suspend sellers for non-compliance.
The plan would also require the courts to give retail crime theft victims seven days’ notice of a court hearing.
The proposal also calls for an unspecified amount of funding, according to a news release, to create new positions in the AG’s office and various state’s attorney offices to investigate and prosecute retail theft and illicit trade.
* * *
FELONY MURDER LAW: Illinois House Republicans on Wednesday continued a push to repeal a criminal justice reform bill passed one year ago, citing the law as the reason a Chicago man was not charged with murder for his role in a shootout that left one bystander dead.
A Cook County grand jury declined to indict Travis Andrews, 26, for the murder of Melinda Crump, 54, who was shot in the abdomen during a shootout initiated by Andrews while walking to a convenience store in December, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
While Andrews initiated the shootout by firing multiple shots at someone else, his bullet did not kill Crump. Bullets apparently fired by the intended target, who has not been identified, struck Crump in the abdomen.
State law, in certain circumstances, allows a person who did not directly take the action that led to a death to be charged with first-degree murder. But reformers, in passing the criminal justice reform law, tried to lessen prosecutors’ ability to file those so-called “felony murder” charges if a person’s action doesn’t directly cause the death.
The reform bill, called the Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T Act, passed during a lame duck session in January 2021. It changed one of three subsections to crimes contained under first-degree murder.
Under the SAFE-T Act, it allows for felony murder charges of an individual if “he or she, acting alone or with one or more participants, commits or attempts to commit a forcible felony other than second degree murder, and in the course of or in furtherance of such crime or flight therefrom, he or she or another participant causes the death of a person.” The previous version did not include the language which said “causes the death of a person.”
Andrews was indicted on weapons charges in the shooting but not on the first-degree murder charge.
While grand jury deliberations are secret, the Sun-Times reported that Assistant State’s Attorney James Murphy told a judge during a hearing that jurors cited the SAFE-T Act as the reason for not pursuing the murder charge.
“The Cook County grand jury’s decision not to indict Travis Andrews on first-degree murder because of the SAFE-T Act highlights what we have been saying all along,” Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva said at a news conference Wednesday. “The SAFE-T Act has made Illinois a less safe place to live.”
But Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Illinois, said the reforms “narrow the wrongdoings” and make it difficult to charge people with first-degree murder when they did not intend to kill the person who died.
Cates said the change in the statute is intended to prevent the possibility of charging someone with a first-degree murder when the killing was committed by a third party.
Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, released a statement following the GOP news conference and grand jury’s decision, saying he hoped the person responsible for Crump’s death would be arrested.
* * *
AG PETITION: Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed a petition on Thursday asking the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene in a controversial sexual assault case that ended with a circuit judge voiding his original guilty verdict and freeing the defendant early.
Raoul petitioned for a writ of mandamus urging the Illinois Supreme Court to order Adams County Circuit Judge Robert K. Adrian to impose a lawful sentence in the sexual assault case – four to 15 years in prison.
Adrian released the defendant after he served five months in a county jail when the sentence would otherwise require four to 15 years in prison.
Adrian presided over the three-day bench criminal sexual assault trial of Drew S. Clinton, 19, in October. Clinton was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl at a graduation party in Quincy on May 30. Adrian found Clinton guilty of one count of criminal sexual assault.
But when Clinton returned to court in January, Adrian decided to reverse his own finding of guilt and vacate the conviction. This allowed Adrian to avoid sentencing him to the minimum sentence under Illinois law. He then ordered Clinton to be released from custody.
A transcript showed that Adrian criticized the parents where the party was held.
“This is what’s happened when parents do not exercise their parental responsibilities, when we have people, adults, having parties for teenagers and they allow coeds and female people to swim in their underwear in their swimming pool,” he said, according to a transcript.
Carrie Ward, the executive director for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Adrian’s statements were victim-blaming and further traumatized the victim.
Adams County Chief Judge Thomas McCartney reassigned Adrian from the criminal docket to a civil docket last month.
Clinton, who formerly lived in Quincy, turned 18 two weeks before the crime occurred. He had no previous criminal record. He currently resides in Michigan.
Daniel S. McConkie Jr., who teaches criminal law at Northern Illinois University School of Law, said Adrian avoided appellate review by reversing the conviction, instead of imposing a sentence that was less than the mandatory minimum.
Adrian said during the hearing that he knew that his decision would be overturned if he did that.
That leaves the case to the Supreme Court to force Adrian to impose the sentence prescribed by Illinois law.
* * *
GAS SURCHARGE: Natural gas utilities in Illinois warned of job losses and possible risks to public safety if state lawmakers repeal a law allowing them to add a surcharge on customer bills that consumer advocates say is being used to gouge customers.
At issue is a 2013 amendment to the Public Utilities Act that allows large natural gas utilities – those serving more than 700,000 customers – to add a surcharge onto customer bills to recover costs associated with investments in “qualifying infrastructure plant,” or QIP.
Those include a return on investment and depreciation allowances related to things like replacing old, leaky gas lines and meters. Those surcharges are subject to review by the Illinois Commerce Commission, but only to determine whether they qualify under the statute.
The commission also has authority to review a company’s actual expenses to determine whether customers were overcharged and are owed a refund.
That law is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2023, but House Bill 3941 would move that date up one year, to Dec. 31, 2022.
Consumer advocacy groups like Illinois PIRG have pushed for its repeal for years, to no avail. But this year, with rising natural gas prices across the board, and amid a global push to move away from fossil fuels to combat climate change, advocates think they have a better chance.
Patrick Whiteside, senior vice president of operations for Nicor Gas, said the surcharge has enabled the company to improve the safety and reliability of its entire system.
But J.C. Kibbey, a clean energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that his own personal gas bill from Peoples Gas in January had a $15 surcharge, more than the company had previously said it would cost in a year, and that it had more than $95 in total infrastructure charges.
The committee did not take action on the bill, which was on the agenda for discussion only.
In a separate email, Illinois PIRG’s Abe Scarr conceded that getting the bill through the General Assembly was a “long shot.” But he said he hopes the concerns that his group and other advocates are raising will deter lawmakers from extending the surcharge past its current 2023 expiration date.
* * *
RENTAL PORTAL GLITCH: An online portal through which tenants impacted by COVID-19 can apply for rental assistance went offline for two days last week after the discovery of a programming glitch that compromised some personal information.
It was an applicant’s call on Feb. 1 to the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s call center that alerted the department to the problem. The applicant told a call center representative that they saw someone else’s document when they logged into their rental application, said IHDA’s spokesperson Amy Lee.
The portal went offline and all access to external users was blocked while IHDA identified and resolved the issue. The portal was shut down until Thursday, Feb. 3, while IHDA identified and resolved the issue.
IHDA found the personal information exposure was the result of a coding error associated with web portal update, not hackers. The processing of applications for rental assistance was not affected by the error.
Tenants used the portal to apply to the Illinois Rental Payment Program, or ILRPP, funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden in March.
The portal was opened on Dec. 6 but stopped accepting applications on Jan. 9. While the portal is no longer accepting new applications, it remains open until Feb. 17 so landlords can submit supporting documents for existing applications.
IHDA received more than 89,700 applications. Of those, 110 applications may have had their information compromised. Lee said they have no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that there was any use of the information that was compromised.
The coding was fixed, thoroughly tested and the portal was back online on Feb. 3. The state incurred no additional costs to fix the coding error, Lee said.
* * *
GOP CRIME BILLS: Senate Republicans unveiled an updated package of crime bills the week ending Friday, Feb. 4, that they say will help curb violent crime and provide a morale boost to law enforcement.
The proposal includes a “Fund the Police Grant Act” that would provide $125 million in funding per year to local governments that will help with hiring, rehiring and retaining officers. Funding would help with the purchase of equipment and storage for body cameras along with other equipment designed to keep officers and communities safe and provide additional training.
Grants would be administered by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.
But Pritzker, in his budget address, drew a stark contrast between his favored policies and those backed by the GOP.
Pritzker’s FY23 budget includes $240 million for the Reimagine Public Safety Act, which aims at investing in youth-focused violence prevention resources in the state’s most dangerous areas. That includes $235 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for grants and $5 million in general revenue for staffing and operations.
Pritzker noted his budget includes an $18.6 million increase to allow for three classes of Illinois State Police cadets, about 300 officers.
The governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2023 includes $4.5 million to help fund body cameras for Illinois State Police in accordance with the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T Act, passed in January 2021.
The SAFE-T act overhauls police certification, reforms use-of-force standards, improves police accountability and abolishes cash bail beginning in 2023 in favor of a system that prioritizes risk of re-offending over an offender’s ability to afford release.
In accordance with the SAFE-T Act, Pritzker proposed $3.5 million in additional resources for ILETSB’s operational costs, which include creating new trainings for officers and creating a public officer misconduct portal. Another $10 million would go to ILETSB to provide grants for body cameras related to the SAFE-T Act’s requirements.
But the law continues to face strong opposition from Republican lawmakers.
Their package in response to rising crime also proposes mandatory sentences of 10 years to life for violent gun offenders, imposes a 10-year minimum on those who sell or give firearms to convicted felons, and requires defendants who commit aggravated battery against an officer or brings a weapon into a penal institution to serve at least 85% of their sentence.
Juveniles who commit crimes related to gun violence or violent carjackings could receive 10 years to life in prison, per the proposal.