SPRINGFIELD – All regions of the state had moved out of Tier 3 mitigations as of Friday, Jan. 22, as the COVID-19 health metrics continue to show improvement statewide.
“With all regions of Illinois now out of Tier 3, we can now see that the entire state is headed down the right path,”said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. “During the summer, we were on this same path. We know that we must continue to take precautions and be smart about how we relax some of the mitigation measures, which are in place to protect our health and safety.”
Region 4 in the Metro East area near St. Louis was the last region to advance to Tier 2 mitigations effective Friday. Region 8, which includes Kane and DuPage counties west of Chicago, Region 9 in the north suburbs, Region 10 in suburban Cook County and Region 11 in the city of Chicago remain under Tier 2 mitigations.
But if metrics continue, Regions 10 and 11 are on track to advance to Tier 1 on Saturday, where indoor dining is allowed with limited capacity.
Region 1 in northern Illinois, region 2 in north-central Illinois and region 7 in south suburban Chicago are already under Tier 1 mitigations, and thus may allow indoor dining at 25 percent capacity and bar service only if food is being served.
In order to move out of tier mitigations, regions must meet certain metrics of case positivity, have staffed intensive care unit bed availability greater than 20 percent for three consecutive days and sustained decline in hospitalized COVID-19 patients on a seven-day rolling average.
Although Governor J.B. Pritzker said he is pleased with the progress of the state, health officials warned that a new variant of COVID-19, which originated in the United Kingdom and has been detected in Illinois and other areas of the United States, could become the dominant strain by March.
“The risk of a resurgence in Illinois, particularly with extremely contagious new variants, is serious,” Pritzker said. “Our ability to have limited indoor restaurant service and to restart youth sports could be cut short if we aren’t extremely careful.”
While all regions have transitioned out of the strictest Tier 3 mitigations, health officials are keeping an eye on numbers, and Ezike confirmed that increased restrictions could be likely if cases and hospitalizations creep back up to mitigation-triggering criteria.
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ALL SPORTS ALLOWED IN 3 REGIONS: All high school sports – including the higher-risk football, basketball and wresting – may now be played in three regions of Illinois as the state continues to loosen restrictions amid the pandemic. The three of the state’s 11 regions that have rolled back to Phase 4 mitigations are free to allow high school sports.
Ezike and Pritzker made the unexpected announcement about high school sports during a news conference Friday, Jan. 22, in Chicago.
All youth sports at the conference and intra-region levels will be allowed regions that are in Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan, Ezike said.
Currently, Region 3 in west-central Illinois, Region 5 in southern Illinois and Region 6 in east-central Illinois are in Phase 4 and eligible to resume youth sports.
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COVID-19 UPDATE: The statewide seven-day rolling positivity rate continued to decline Friday, Jan. 22, to 5 percent, marking the 14th consecutive day the rate has decreased.
IDPH reported 7,042 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 Friday, and 95 additional deaths. In the previous 24 hours, 125,831 test results had been reported for a total of 15.2 million since the pandemic started.
As of Thursday night, 3,179 COVID-19 patients were reported to be in the hospital, with 661 patients in intensive care unit beds. There were 348 COVID-19 patients reported on ventilators.
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VACCINE UPDATE: Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, which includes non-health care essential workers, residents over the age of 65 and inmates, will begin statewide on Monday, Jan. 25, by appointment only.
“So don’t try to line up at your local store or call your local pharmacy,” Gov. JB Pritzker said while making the announcement during a news conference Friday, Jan. 22, in Chicago. “When we have a steady stream of vaccines coming in from the federal government, we will launch walk in locations and round the clock operations.”
The Illinois National Guard mobile vaccination teams have begun operations at six vaccination sites in Cook County. Pritzker said over the next three weeks approximately 25 additional vaccination teams are deploying in high-need areas across the state, in addition to the sites that were announced last week in St. Clair County.
Vaccination appointments can be made online through Walgreens, CVS and Jewel-Osco. The Illinois National Guard vaccine sites and local health departments will also start taking appointments Monday.
The Walgreens appointment website was the only one up and running as of Friday, but the other locations are expected to have their appointment websites up soon, Pritzker said.
By Feb.1, Pritzker said pharmacies within HyVee, Mariano’s and Kroger will also be available as vaccine sites. More vaccine sites will become available as the state receives more vaccine doses from the federal government.
As of Thursday night, more than 1.4 million total doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines had been delivered to the state of Illinois. Of those doses, 922,235 doses had been delivered to providers across the state, including Chicago, and 524,050 doses have been allocated to the federal government’s Pharmacy Partnership Program for long-term care facilities.
IDPH reported a total of 616,677 vaccines have been administered, including 93,683 for long-term care facilities. The seven-day rolling average of vaccines administered daily is 24,190 doses.
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GRADUATION STANDARDS: New high school graduation requirements that were part of an omnibus education bill passed during the lame duck session are drawing criticism from some members of the Illinois State Board of Education.
Those new requirements were included in House Bill 2170, Amendment 3, which was introduced by Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood. They include the addition of two years of foreign language classes and two years of laboratory science instead of just science courses.
“And so, the message this sends to me is that somebody has decided that two years of a foreign language class are more important than art, more important than music, more important than career and technical education courses, in a school day that is already so full and so very limited with time,” ISBE member Susie Morrison, of Carlinville, said during a virtual board meeting Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Morrison also noted that foreign language is also an area where there is a significant shortage of teachers in Illinois, and she predicted that many districts will have a hard time finding qualified staff to meet the requirements.
The legislation, which Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign, will establish the laboratory science requirement for students entering ninth grade during the 2024-2025 school year. The foreign language requirement is scheduled to take effect for students entering ninth grade for the 2028-2029 school year.
However, lawmakers have said the target date for the foreign language requirement was a drafting error in the bill and there will likely be a follow-up bill in the current legislative session to move that date up.
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MARIJUANA REINVESTMENT GRANTS: The state announced Thursday, Jan. 21, that it has awarded $31.5 million in grants to 81 community organizations around Illinois to help fund legal services for low-income residents, youth development, violence prevention and economic development in areas hardest hit by the war on drugs.
The Restore, Reinvest and Renew, or “R3” grants are funded with a portion of the state’s revenue from sales of adult-use marijuana, and they were a key element of the 2019 bill that legalized recreational marijuana in Illinois.
The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Under that law, the state levies an excise tax of 10 percent of the purchase price of marijuana with a THC content of 35 percent or less. Marijuana with THC levels higher than that is taxed at 25 percent of the purchase price while cannabis-infused products are taxed at 10 percent.
The law also provides that 25 percent of that revenue be used to fund grants in communities that have suffered from economic disinvestment, violence, and the severe and disproportionate damage caused by the war on drugs, which are largely low-income communities of color.
Officials said the grants announced Thursday, Jan. 21, were funded with revenues from the first month of legalized sales through the present. The deadline for submitting applications for the first round of grants was in July. Applications were submitted through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which was also responsible for identifying communities that were eligible.
Prairie State Legal Services, which provides services in northern and parts of central Illinois, was awarded four grants totaling just over $1 million to provide civil legal aid, while Land of Lincoln Legal Services, which operates in central and southern Illinois, was awarded three grants totaling just over $230,000.
Several of the grants also went to agencies that provide re-entry services for state prison inmates being released back into the community. Among those was a $228,702 grant to Lutheran Social Services in Marion.
The largest single grant announced Thursday, $2.5 million, was awarded to the Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative to provide a combination of youth development, economic development and violence prevention services on Chicago’s mid-south side.
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SOCIAL STUDIES OVERHAUL: Social studies classes in Illinois public schools are about to get a major overhaul, with more emphasis on Black history and the contributions of other underrepresented groups to American culture.
In addition, within the next few years, all school districts in the state will be required to offer computer science courses and more instruction in computer literacy.
Those are just two of the major provisions of a 218-page education equity bill, House Bill 2170, that passed during the recent lame duck session of the General Assembly with the backing of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.
Jennifer Kirmes, executive director of teaching and learning at the Illinois State Board of Education, said in an interview that the agency has been working toward updating the state’s social studies standards for months.
Specifically, the bill calls on ISBE to adopt new standards by July 1 “that are inclusive and reflective of all individuals in this country.”
It also calls for establishing an “Inclusive American History Commission” to help the board develop the new standards. That 22-member commission will be charged with reviewing educational resources that teachers can use that “reflect the racial and ethnic diversity” of Illinois and the United States, providing guidance for educators on how to ensure that their class content is not biased in favor of certain cultures and providing guidance on how to identify resources for “non-dominant cultural narratives.”
The bill also calls on every elementary and high school to develop a curriculum that includes one unit of studying pre-enslavement Black history. That unit will cover the period from 3,000 BCE to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America. Black history units will also have to include the study of the reasons why Black people came to be enslaved and the study of the American civil rights movement.
Kirmes said ISBE expects to have a draft of the new standards available for public comment in March. The final standards will then be presented to the board for approval early in the summer.
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COMPUTER SCIENCE, HIGHER ED: Also in House Bill 2170, is language that tries to ensure greater access throughout the state to computer literacy programs and computer science education.
It calls on all districts to provide “developmentally appropriate opportunities” to gain computer literacy skills beginning in elementary school. Also, starting in the 2022-23 academic year, students entering ninth grade will be required to take at least one course that provides “intensive instruction” in computer literacy. That could be a course that also meets other graduation requirements such as math or social studies.
Beginning in the 2023-24 academic year, all districts that operate high schools will be required to offer at least one course in computer science, which is defined as “the study of computers and algorithms, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their implementation, and their impact on society.” It does not include the study of everyday uses of computers and applications such as keyboarding or accessing the internet.
ISBE does not currently have educational standards for computer science, Kirmes said, so those will have to be developed from scratch.
Other provisions of the bill call for changing the state’s high school graduation requirements so they are more closely aligned with college admission requirements at the University of Illinois. Starting in the 2024-25 academic year, students entering ninth grade will have to complete two years of laboratory science. And beginning in the 2028-29 school year, they will be required to complete two years of a foreign language.
In the area of higher education, the bill changes the funding formula for the AIM HIGH student aid program. Instead of splitting the cost of those grants evenly between universities and the state, schools where 49 percent or more of their undergraduate student body are eligible for federal Pell grants will only have to match 20 percent of their state allocation while schools where fewer than 49 percent of students qualify for Pell grants will have to match 60 percent of the state allocation.
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STEANS RESIGNS: Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, plans to resign at the end of the month, after a 12-year tenure in the Illinois Senate.
“It’s been the privilege of a lifetime to represent the most diverse Senate district in the State of Illinois,” Steans said in a written statement issued Tuesday, Jan. 19. “I’ve benefited tremendously from the many perspectives of the people a I’ve represented. We’ve made great progress together, and now it’s time to pass the baton.”
Steans’ resignation follows two other high-profile resignations by Sens. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and former Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who both stepped down from their Senate seats in recent weeks.
Steans, as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was deeply involved in budget matters. She was a key player in crafting the cannabis legalization law, and had important roles in advancing legislation to protect abortion rights and to expand the Affordable Care Act in Illinois.
Steans, 57, has not revealed her next move, but her statement mentions she will continue to support the efforts of citizen-activists after leaving the Senate.
Her successor will be appointed to serve for the two years remaining in her term by a weighted vote of the Democratic committeemen and committeewomen from the Chicago wards that comprise the 7th Senate District, which Steans’ represents.
Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat whose House district is within Steans’ Senate district, confirmed to Capitol News Illinois that she intends to seek the appointment.
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PRETRIAL INTEREST ON DAMAGES: The Illinois General Assembly last week pushed through legislation to allow victims in all personal injury and wrongful death cases to collect interest on money they were awarded by a court starting from the moment the alleged injury or death took place.
House Bill 3360 is meant to deter companies or individuals who are sued from intentionally stalling or delaying cases that would be successful at trial, according to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association — a major lobbying force behind the bill.
The bill sets prejudgment interest at 9 percent, the same rate used in Illinois for post judgment interest, which is collected in cases after the court issues a judgment award. The only prejudgment interest, under current Illinois law, is a 5 percent interest that applies to damages in specific cases that do not include personal injury or wrongful death cases.
Under HB 3360, prejudgment interest would not apply to municipalities facing personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits. The interest would begin to accrue once the company or individual being sued “has notice of the injury from the time of the incident itself or a written notice,” the bill states.
This means that the interest in these cases could begin to accrue before the injured party files a lawsuit in court.
Opponents — including members of the Illinois Defense Counsel — argued the measure unfairly targets defendants, or those being sued, and criticized how the bill was passed quickly by both chambers with limited time for meaningful debate.
It passed with only Democratic support in each chamber. It needs only a signature from Gov. JB Pritzker to become law.
IDC, an organization serving the interests of defense lawyers, also lambasted the bill for allowing prejudgment interest to apply to noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, and future damages, such as future lost wages or medical expenses.
A group of IDC members wrote a letter to Pritzker last week, encouraging him to veto the bill.
Trial Lawyers Association President Larry Rogers Jr., an attorney who represents injured plaintiffs at Chicago-based Power Rogers LLP, said the bill intends to discourage litigation and encourage resolution.
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DECOUPLING BILL FAILS: House Democrats fell 10 votes short of passing a bill, endorsed by Gov. JB Pritzker, that would have eliminated certain tax deductions for Illinois business owners that were created under the federal CARES Act. Pritzker has argued this change by the legislature is needed to prevent revenues from shrinking by more than $500 million during the current fiscal year, thus enlarging the state’s $3.9 billion budget deficit.
Specifically, the bill would end the CARES Act amendments that expanded income deductions business owners can claim as net operating losses, carryback losses or excess business losses.
In a Jan. 8 news release, Pritzker encouraged the General Assembly to “decouple” Illinois’ tax law from the federal tax amendments under the CARES Act, an action that would have kept the state tax code consistent with previous years.
Pritzker claimed those changes would have preserved $500 million in state tax revenue from noncorporate taxpayers and owners of pass-through entities, such as limited liability companies and partnerships.
During House floor debate in the early hours of Jan. 13, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle described the bill as preserving up to $1 billion in state revenue.
Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski, the bill’s sponsor, said the proposed changes would impact about 440,000 taxpayers statewide.
Ten House Democrats voted present while another eight did not vote on the bill, including former House Speaker Michael Madigan, of Chicago, and the newly elected Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, of Hillside.
At least a dozen Republicans condemned the proposal as a last minute “tax hike” on small business owners already crushed by the pandemic.
Zalewski characterized the proposal as an effort to prevent loss of revenue, rather than an effort to raise new revenue.
House Republicans were also critical that the Pritzker administration and the Illinois Department of Revenue did not notify taxpayers or the legislature sooner of the state’s plans to decouple from the federal changes that were made in March.
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CRITICS OF DECOUPLING BILL: While Gov. JB Pritzker has said he’s confident the decoupling bill will come up for a vote in the upcoming regular session, Republican lawmakers are raising concerns about the impact the bill would have on small business owners, potentially affecting 440,000 taxpayers statewide.
Some Republicans, who have called the bill a “tax hike,” are also questioning whether there is enough time to pass substantial changes to the tax code, with tax season only a few weeks away.
Rep. Steve Reick, R-Harvard, said the clock is running out for the Legislature to pass this bill, especially since the state Senate on Thursday canceled its planned session beginning Jan. 26.
The House is scheduled to meet the week of Feb. 2, and both the House and Senate are set to meet the week of Feb. 9.
“We’re looking at the middle to end of February before any of this can be can be laid to rest,” Reick said Friday during a Zoom news conference.
A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue, in an email, said it’s “optimal” to pass decoupling legislation before the start of the tax filing season because taxpayers have not yet filed returns.
“The 2020 tax filing season will not open until February 12, but the opening of the season does not preclude passage of legislation after that date,” DOR spokesperson Terry Horstman wrote.
Reick said the General Assembly can find ways to reduce the deficit by cutting spending, rather than increasing taxes on small businesses that are already hurting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we if we looked at every department, we could find areas to cut,” Reick said, adding that he’s still interested in the data from Pritzker’s request in September 2020 when he asked his agency heads to each reduce spending by 5 percent.
Rep. Mike Marron, R-Fithian, said he opposes raising taxes until the Legislature can curtail spending.
“And when you obligate yourself to spend more money while you’re already facing a very large deficit, I don’t think anybody is demonstrating any appetite for fiscal responsibility at this point,” Marron said during the news conference. “I’m not even willing to discuss tax increases until somebody actually acts like they want to approach the budget with some kind of constraint.”
During the news conference, Reick, Marron and Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, also criticized the governor and the Department of Revenue for not bringing the bill forward immediately after the CARES Act made those changes to the federal tax provisions in March.
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REMOTE VOTING FAILS: A bill which would have permitted the House and Senate to convene remotely and cast votes during a public health emergency did not pass both houses in the lame duck session.
It would have required both chambers to create rules for remote participation in session and committees, and it would have applied to the boards of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability and Legislative Audit Commission.
The Senate changed its rules during the brief May session to allow for remote hearings but the House failed to pass similar changes. Two lawmakers voted remotely in the lame duck session.
Both chambers released tentative calendars last week showing they are scheduled to meet in-person several days each month through May.
Since the pandemic hit Illinois in March of 2020, members of the House met briefly the following May and earlier this month at the Bank of Springfield Center, while the Senate continued at the Capitol for those brief sessions.
Multiple people that attended last week’s lame duck session – including the chief of staff to the House speaker’s office – have tested positive for COVID-19. The governor said last week he would not prioritize lawmakers in the next phase of vaccination.
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OTHER BILLS FAIL: A vote-by-mail bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 40-18 but did not receive a vote in the House, would have made permanent some changes that were implemented in response to the pandemic for the 2020 general election. This would have included the use of drop-box sites to collect ballots without postage and curbside voting during early voting or on Election Day.
It also would have required the State Board of Elections to provide guidance, rather than rules, for securing collection sites.
Meanwhile, House Bill 122, which would have added another round of 75 marijuana dispensary licenses among other actions, passed the Senate but did not receive a vote in the House as well.
Senate Bill 558, which was a wide-ranging bill consisting of several health care reforms backed by the Black Caucus, passed the House but did not receive a vote in the Senate.