Herald-Whig View

Local plan to restart economy deserves a second look from governor

Posted: May. 10, 2020 12:10 am

FOR FAR too long, West-Central Illinois was left high and dry by the state of Illinois. A lack of funding -- and concern -- from Springfield led to the moniker "Forgottonia," and it wasn't far from the truth.

But folks here didn't sit back and let the economic burden of a largely divested capital hamstring their livelihoods. Instead, they rose to the challenge, picked themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and got to work improving their situation. For some, that involved starting or expanding businesses. For others, it meant banding together, identifying problems, demanding solutions and relentlessly pursuing them until they were found. All those efforts over the years have made this area a better place to live and solidified our independent spirit.

So naturally, in times of crisis, we look to our family, friends and neighbors first for help and support. And we are indeed in a crisis, waging a life-or-death battle on two fronts: epidemiological and economic.

On the first, the state benefited from decisive action by Gov. J.B. Pritzker as the virus began to spread. Pritzker was in the gubernatorial vanguard, among the first in the nation to issue a stay-at-home order. Using his authority, he undoubtedly saved thousands of Illinoisans' lives.

The goal at that time was to "flatten the curve" of infections, blunting and extending the peak of infections over a longer period of time to ease the strain on resources and give front-line health care workers a fighting chance to save more lives.

The strategy has largely worked.

That is not to say that there haven't been challenges. More than 3,200 Illinois residents' deaths have been related to COVID-19, and more than 70,000 have been infected. They're sobering numbers, but could have been far worse. Indeed, they still are going to climb, particularly in larger urban areas.

But we must remember that no one asked for this pandemic. No one desired the deaths of more than 80,000 Americans so far. No one -- no mayor, governor or executive anywhere -- was entirely prepared.

For that reason alone, Pritzker and his team of advisers deserve praise for their efforts to tackle this heartbreaking challenge.

So far, Adams County and the surrounding area have been spared the horror of catastrophic outbreaks and a mounting death toll because of residents' adherence to Pritzker's stay-at-home mandate. That has turned our attention to the economic front, where the battle to save businesses has been foundering as the governor has extended that mandate multiple times.

Mustering more than 50 business and health experts from the community, the most up-to-date data available and the can-do spirit this region prides itself on, the Adams County Community Response Task Force set about finding a path forward for businesses throughout the region that would protect lives and livelihoods.

The task force has focused its efforts on three pillars: health care and wellness, the social community and economic vitality. Working together in groups as a larger unit through the online conferencing that has become the new normal for many of us, the group put together a framework for the region to "adopt a plan which seeks to reopen the economic and social components of our society with a phased approach that relies on medical experts, business leaders and community partners."

The result was a four-phase plan that involved benchmarks to progress to each subsequent phase. Among them were meeting each of five gated indicators and avoiding each of five red flags. It was and is a solid plan that would take a holistic approach to resuscitating the local economy. Peoria Journal-Star columnist Phil Luciano even referred to the plan in that paper, suggesting Peoria County should hire some of the "quick-thinking minds in Adams County."

The group, with the blessing of task force members, the Quincy City Council and the Adams County Board, sent the plan to Pritzker, hoping to persuade him to take a different approach. At his press conference Tuesday, Pritzker dashed those hopes.

After opening comments that included recognition of the task force plan and Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore and Adams County Board Chairman Kent Snider, he instead introduced his own plan that would delay forward movement in Quincy and lump West-Central Illinois into one of four regions with a group of 38 other counties that extends to the Indiana border.

To his credit, Pritzker has the right idea with a regional approach. Regions that are so large, however, make nimble action impossible and all but defeat the purpose of a region-based plan in a state as large and diverse as Illinois.

Pritzker's "Restore Illinois" plan also uses a 28-day phasing window and puts the start date for the second phase at May 1. That means the earliest Adams County could move to the third phase would be May 28, which would allow for manufacturing, officer, retail, barbershops and salons to reopen with capacity limits and other precautions. It would be late June or early July -- at least -- before restaurants and bars could reopen and travel in the state resume in the fourth phase.

We implore the governor to reconsider. At a news conference last week, Moore, Snider and others announced they were revising the task force plan and again submitting it to the governor. Key among the revisions was a request to set the reopening start date to March 20. Since that time, Adams County has met every benchmark set forth in Pritzker's plan. In fact, if March 20 were the start date, we would have moved into the fourth phase this weekend.

Other requests included reducing the phasing window from 28 days to the 14 days recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and splitting the state into more zones -- making use of the Illinois Department of Public Health's Office of Preparedness and Response's 11 emergency medical services regions. These recommendations make sense and would draw on expert science and a care and reporting structure already in place.

It also would increase the engagement of smaller counties in our region such as Pike, Brown, Hancock, Schuyler and Scott. Working together, sharing information and resources with the partner counties will only serve to benefit all, while at the same time allowing for fast reaction should trouble spots develop. So far, though, these counties have seen fewer than 70 confirmed cases combined and one death.

Illinois has made enormous strides in the past week or so in battling the spread of the novel coronavirus and its economic fallout. More than 20,000 people per day are now being tested, and the troubles plaguing the state's unemployment system are being addressed. But there still is work to be done.

While that work is being done, though, bartenders are missing car payments. Laborers cannot make their mortgage payments. Beauticians worry how they will feed their children.

These stresses, too, will take a toll on the health of the state.

The governor has made clear in recent days that eradication of COVID-19 is his top priority. We would ask him to remember that eradicating the disease likely will not be possible, even with an effective vaccine and herd immunity. A lingering threat, however small, will always remain. So remembering our initial goal in the early days of pandemic -- flattening the curve -- and recognizing that success should guide all our actions moving forward.

Standing firm in the courage of one's convictions is indeed a hallmark of great leadership. Then again, so is taking new information and ideas and adjusting course for the betterment of all.

Gov. Pritzker, we urge you to please reconsider your plan and allow us to use this data- and science-based approach to save lives and livelihoods in West-Central Illinois.