Chesney’s Weekly Roundup: June 26, 2020

COVID-19

All Regions of Illinois Move to Phase 4 on June 26.  All four Restore Illinois health regions have met the IDPH health benchmarks to advance into Phase 4. Metrics include reductions of positivity rate and hospital admissions and availability of hospital surge capacity.
 
On a statewide level, Illinois flattened the curve, passed the peak and saw a sustained decline in key metrics since the coronavirus pandemic began. Looking at 7-day rolling averages – which smooth out daily fluctuations and allow trends to emerge – Illinois is seeing marked declines in cases, deaths, case positivity and Covid-related hospitalizations.

Phase 4 allows for the safe reopening or expansion of several key business segments – such as health and fitness, movies and theater, museums and zoos, as well as indoor dining at restaurants. Phase 4 also allows for expanded gathering sizes, increasing the limit from 10 in Phase 3, to 50 people or fewer. This expanded gathering limit extends to key activities like meetings, events, and funerals.

As all four regions of the state move into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan on June 26, the state has built up its daily testing capabilities, surpassing 30,000 tests in a 24-hour period for the first time.
 
Illinois is continuing to build on this progress, launching 12 mobile community testing teams. The testing teams will move throughout the state to mitigate and suppress emerging outbreaks, including places like meatpacking plants, nursing homes, or other traceable gatherings.
 
The state also continues to build up its statewide contact tracing capacities, increasing the ranks of contact tracers by 20% since June 1 for a total of over 550 active contact tracers across the state. 250 new tracers will join their ranks in the coming weeks as Illinois continues to scale up operations, including using new technology to multiply the state’s effectiveness in its contact tracing efforts.
 
In addition, all of Illinois’ 97 local health departments have applied for funding support totaling $230 million to increase contact tracing. Those funds will be disbursed in the next few weeks.
 

The state is also launching a new county level risk assessment tool which will help individuals, families and community groups inform their choices about personal and family gatherings, as well as what activities they choose to do.
 
The county-level indicators are similar to the Restore Illinois criteria and support the state’s framework. By applying the same metrics to each county, IDPH is using a standardized approach to monitor the state as a whole. Each county will be assessed to determine whether it is meeting or exceeding each indicator target. Using a color-coded system, counties will be able to determine whether they are meeting or not meeting set targets.
 
The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is monitoring several indicators that measure the health burden of COVID-19 in each Illinois county and capture a county’s ability to respond.
 
These metrics are intended to be used for local level awareness of each county’s progress during Phase 4 and will help local leaders, businesses, local health departments, and the public make informed decisions and promote healthy behaviors.
 
To view the online county risk assessment tool, visit here.
 
The state continues to urge all residents to follow the mitigations that we know will stop or slow down the spread of COVID-19: maintaining 6 feet of physical distance, hand washing regularly, and, wearing a face covering.
 
To view the guidelines for all industries reopening in Phase 4, visit here.

EDUCATION

Guidelines for K-12 reopening this fall.  Many Illinoisans are looking forward to returning to school for the 2020 fall term, which will begin eight weeks from now in late August.  With a short time provided to them to get up to speed, local school districts are racing to open under the strict conditions laid out by guidance issued this week by Gov. Pritzker.

Two key elements of the current fall 2020 term school reopening plan are that many Illinois students are going to attend school and be taught in person, unless they have special situations to the contrary; and that Illinois school districts must make efforts to ensure that the learning experiences of stay-at-home students will be parallel to the experiences of students learning in the classroom.  Significant investments in distance learning, video lecturing, and audio participation will be required for these students as well as in the event that blended learning is utilized. 

Under social distancing requirements, students and staff attending in-person instruction will be required to wear facemasks during the school day.  The mask requirement for schoolchildren will be difficult to enforce and both educators and parents have voiced their opposition to this requirement.  Various ancillary activities that (under normal circumstances) involve gatherings of 50 or more pupils, including school lunchroom times, school gatherings and assemblies, and many school sporting activities, will be modified or suspended for the duration. 

The overall paradigm of the 2020 fall-term guidances released this week is that a wide variety of students, either because of their own health conditions or because of the COVID-19 status of one or more members of their families, will not choose to attend classroom instruction in person.  Other students will be able to attend classroom instruction, and will attend.  Every student is supposed to be treated equally despite this massive difference in status.   Many educators are raising serious questions about the ability of Illinois schools, families, and pupils to comply with this massive change in the way students are taught throughout the State.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Road map for reopening Illinois colleges and universities.  As with Illinois K-12 schools, Illinois institutions of higher education are planning for reopening on-campus learning in fall 2020.  Overall guidance for four-year colleges and universities was published by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) on Tuesday, June 23.  The guidelines center on safe classrooms and dormitory spaces.  Schools are strongly encouraged to consider options for blended learning, with higher-instruction lectures broadcast to students watching from home or another safe space.  Living on campus will be challenging to some.  Many dormitories will only allow only person to live in each dormitory bedroom. 

Illinois colleges and universities, which will each have executive control over their own spaces, are advised on how to control them.  The overall safety mandate is that everyone should wear a facemask on campus unless some sort of urgent personal health condition prevents it.  Within this overall mandate, additional guidances cover human densities in college classroom corridors and in hands-on activity spaces such as science labs.  Colleges and universities are encouraged to think about staggering their classroom attendance times and laboratory sessions.

College athletics is going to depend on the nature of each individual sport.  The emphasis this fall is going to be on individual sporting endeavors, rather than team sports with crowded locker rooms.  The NCAA and the NAIA will issue additional advisories to sports teams during the course of summer 2020.

Community colleges operate separately from four-year universities and are not subject to the jurisdiction of the IBHE.  The Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) has convened a “Return to Campus Committee” that will report soon.  The ICCB Committee is likely to issue recommendations for the safe reopening of Illinois community colleges that will closely track the guidance issued by the IBHE.  

BUDGET

Illinois unemployment insurance (UI) program to borrow from federal government.  The UI program, facing insolvency, has applied for permission to borrow $6.4 billion.  Acting under Title XII of the Social Security Act, the federal government has announced its readiness to loan a sum up to this amount to the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES).  This massive cash infusion will allow Illinois unemployment benefits, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) aid, to continue to be paid to eligible Illinoisans.  Illinois is one of eleven states that had received authorization, as of Tuesday, June 23, to borrow money from the federal government to support their unemployment insurance programs. 

Four of these states, including California, New York, and Texas, have already begun to draw on the moneys authorized.  Illinois will soon have to draw on this money, too.  The moneys authorized and, in many cases, drawn down are being paid out in accordance with underlying COVID-19 pandemic unemployment patterns, which are hitting high-population-density and urbanized states first.  While more rural states such as Iowa are also being hard hit by COVID-19, the pandemic is not affecting their economies and overall job pictures as much as the pain inflicted on relatively urbanized states such as California, Illinois, and New York.

GAMBLING

Illinois casinos and video gaming locations to reopen on July 1.  The dual-eligibility reopening will cover both land-based riverside casinos (“riverboats”) and video gaming terminals (VGT).  Both sets of gaming opportunities will reopen for business on the first day of July 2020.  All of the riverboats will be allowed to reopen on that date.  The VGT reopening will be dependent upon local ordinances and health orders in the communities where they are allowed to operate inside bars, restaurants, taverns, VGT parlors, and other places of local business.

The slot machine/VGT reopening is taking place under a series of executive agreements between the Illinois Gaming Board and the large firms (riverboats, VGT terminal operators) that control the gaming machines.  Under these agreements, each operating gaming machine must be sited at a six-foot social distance from other gaming machines.  Visitors to riverboat casino gaming floors may see many machines open and ready for play, while other machines next to them are powered-down and unplayable. 

In some cases, in both casinos and in VGT taverns and parlors, gaming operators may install temporary impermeable screens in between machines to enable machines less than six feet away from each other to be played.  Players and staff will be asked to wear facial coverings, as in other indoor Illinois public locations.  Video gaming terminals and slot machines will be frequently cleaned and disinfected.

Casinos that are licensed operators of sports books will be allowed to reopen their sports betting windows as part of the overall reopening.  Sports betting window personnel and other betting personnel will be protected from the public by screens.  Other ancillary casino activities, such as food lines and buffet tables, will remain shut down for now.  

JOBS

Many employers can get their PPP loans forgiven if they call back their employees.  The good news applies to employers who have applied for, and received, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) temporary loans from the federal government.  Congress created the PPP loan program during the opening weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide “bridge” financing for employers facing cash-flow situations.  PPP financing terms include clauses intended to create an incentive for the employer to maintain an employer-employee relationship with persons who have been laid off due to the pandemic.  

Under certain circumstances, if an employer fulfills the contractual conditions created under the PPP loan document and calls back its employees, the employer will enjoy PPP loan forgiveness.  If this forgiveness is granted, the PPP funds transfer, or part of it, stops being a loan and becomes a forgiven loan – in effect, a grant – paid to the employer as a reward for maintaining the employer-employee relationship during tough times and calling back the employee for further service.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (DFPR), the State agency that oversees financial institutions and loan activity, has developed two new webinars to walk Illinois lending institutions and PPP borrowers through the new loan-forgiveness process. 

PUBLIC HEALTH

Urgent need for Illinois blood donations.  The near-end of conventional bloodmobile collections has now run into a sharp upturn in conventional medical procedures throughout Illinois clinics and hospitals, including procedures that require blood and blood products.  Illinois has moved through several stages of its COVID-19 reopening process, and as of late June a wide variety of health procedures are being performed under the conditions recommended by board-certified physicians, including open-heart surgeries and other blood-dependent procedures.   

Based on current supply and demand numbers, the Illinois Coalition of Community Blood Centers reported “a critical shortage of blood” in Illinois this week.  Three-fifths of the blood conventionally supplied to blood centers by donation is, under usual circumstances, collected through the off-site blood drives that are currently shut down through much of the state.  Only a trickle remains to service what is becoming a fully reopened pathway of demand from health care providers statewide.

Blood collection centers welcome donors.  They are keeping their premises carefully cleaned and sanitized, and all donors are kept at safe social distances from each other.  Some off-site blood donation locations are beginning to open.  Persons who contact their local blood centers will learn of opportunities to donate.  Many blood centers now have access to COVID-19 antibody tests, and all blood donated to these centers will be tested.

TAXES

Report puts numbers behind Illinois’ high property taxes.    The study, but the nonpartisan Center for State Tax Policy, is based upon publicly available tax rates and other data collected in all 50 U.S. states.  The Center found that when the 50 states and their local governments are ranked in terms of their institutional dependency upon revenue from property tax bills, Illinois is 11th highest of the 50 states.  In terms of property taxes per capita, a relatively efficient measurement of the actual burden exerted by property taxes upon individual Illinoisans and their families, Illinois “scored” 8th of 50.       

The numbers compiled by the Center for State Tax Policy are especially noteworthy when compared to two other “high-scoring” states with comparatively heavy property tax burdens, Alaska (property tax burden: 2nd of 50 states) and New Hampshire (#1 of 50).  These are two states that do not deduct state income taxes from paychecks, and they must make up the lost income in other ways.  By contrast, Illinois has a burdensome State income tax.  With a higher-than-average property tax burden, one of the highest-in-the-nation sales tax rates, and a personal/corporate income tax, Illinois’s cumulative tax burden is one of the highest such burdens among the 50 states.