CAPITOL RECAP: Stay-at-home order, school closures through April; COVID-19 cases continue to surge

BY CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike addresses the media during a news conference Tuesday, March 31, in Chicago. Ezike announced there were 937 new cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, and 26 additional deaths in the past day in Illinois. (Credit: blueroomstream.com)

K-12 schools will remain closed and a stay-at-home order for Illinoisans will remain in place through April 30, as Gov. JB Pritzker announced during his daily COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, March 31, that he was extending those orders on Wednesday, April 1.

Pritzker’s office said businesses permitted to operate in his previous stay-at-home executive order issued March 20—such as grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies and other businesses providing services deemed essential in the order—may remain open.

“If we can end these orders earlier, I’ll be the first one to tell you when we can start to make strides toward normalcy again. But that time is not today. And it’s not April 7,” Pritzker said.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, on Thursday, April 2, announced an additional 715 confirmed COVID-19 cases—including for the first time Logan, Macoupin, Mercer, Moultrie, and Piatt counties—bringing Illinois’ total to 7,695 cases in 61 counties.

She also said 16 more residents died, in Christian, Cook, DuPage, McHenry, and Whiteside counties. The Illinois novel coronavirus death toll stands at 157.

Twelve of the newly reported deaths were in Cook County, in people aged in their 30s to 80s. A total of 43,656 people have been tested, an increase of more than 3,000 from Wednesday.

COVID-19 is “not a death sentence,” Ezike said. The third and fourth patients confirmed to have the virus in Illinois, a couple in their 70s, recovered and are doing well, and a survey sent to those who contracted COVID-19 earlier this week found about 50 percent had recovered after seven days. That is a number Ezike said “will only increase.”

Pritzker said when the stay-at-home order is lifted will depend on when the disease “peaks,” meaning the number of added cases each day hits a maximum and then starts to decline.

“What we’re seeing in places like New York is that the peak may last for several days or more,” he said.

Ezike said extending the stay-at-home order will help “flatten the curve,” or decrease the number of cases when the disease does peak, in turn limiting strain on the medical system.

She said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently shared new guidance that “we should be concerned about people transmitting the virus even 24 or 48 hours before symptoms.”

“So that’s even further evidence that we need to stay home. You can’t eyeball someone and think you know if they’re sick or not,” she said. “Let’s continue to do what we’ve been telling ourselves to do – washing our hands, staying home, covering our cough, cleaning frequently touched surfaces. Let’s do it all for ourselves, for our family and for our community.”

UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS: First-time unemployment claims skyrocketed again in Illinois and throughout the nation in the last week of March as businesses closed their doors or scaled back operations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced Thursday, April 2, that 6.6 million Americans filed first-time unemployment claims during the week that ended March 28, including 178,133 workers in Illinois, a 1,539-percent increase over the number of new claims filed the week ending March 14, when the coronavirus-related spike in unemployment first started to appear.

That brings the total for the past two weeks to just fewer than 10 million nationally, and 292,247 for the state of Illinois—numbers that are unprecedented in the history of the unemployment insurance program.

According to the Labor Department, nearly every state that provided comments on their numbers cited the COVID-19 outbreak for the increase. Industries hardest hit included the service sector, most notably accommodation and food services, as well as health care, social services, manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade and construction.

The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported Thursday that every state in the nation saw huge increases in first-time jobless claims during the week.

Under new federal law, most unemployed workers are now eligible for enhanced federal benefits, above and beyond what state unemployment insurance programs provide. In addition, employers with fewer than 500 employees are now required to provide their workers with paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave if the employee is out due to certain reasons related to COVID-19.

ALL-IN EFFORT: Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday, April 2, announced a public service initiative to mobilize the state’s “strongest weapon” against the spread of novel coronavirus—Illinoisans.

Pritzker said his administration has “nearly exhausted every avenue available” to mitigate COVID-19’s expansion. It instituted a stay-at-home order, banned dining in at restaurants and bars, limited public gatherings and shuttered schools.

Now, the governor is asking Illinoisans to not only stay at home, but to celebrate it.

“All In Illinois” is a program encouraging residents to continue observing social distancing guidelines. Citizens can go to AllIn.Illinois.gov to pledge they will uphold best practices, post social media videos and add digital frames to online profiles in support of the effort.

Pritzker said he is “very, very proud” of those working and learning from home and essential personnel helping residents.

“I see you as tough as you are kind, as courageous as you are creative,” he said. “… All In is our anthem and our point of pride—Illinoisans staying home for the good of each other and for our state.”

The initiative encourages citizens to consider their neighbors, relatives, immunocompromised community members and essential workers by avoiding proximity.

ALTERNATE CARE FACILITIES: Gov. JB Pritzker announced on Thursday, April 2, that Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park is the fourth medical field station established in the Chicago area to alleviate the crush of COVID-19 cases at hospitals. It holds 230 beds.

The three other facilities are Sherman Hospital in Kane County and Metro South Center in suburban Cook County, which combined can accommodate more than 500 patients, and Chicago’s McCormick Place, which, when completed, will house 3,000 beds.

A central Illinois location is being worked on, the governor added.

“These temporary facilities are meant to support, not replace, our existing medical infrastructure,” Pritzker said.  “Patients will be directed first to existing hospitals and if they are lower acuity, they will be transferred to alternative sites.”

PRISON POPULATION: The Pritzker administration is continuing to review and commute the sentences of vulnerable inmates and those with nonviolent offenses to mitigate potential spread among prison populations.

Sentences for pregnant women or those with babies, retail shoplifters, and those incarcerated on narcotics chargers have been commuted.

“We had more than 1,000 fewer prisoners in prison today than we had on February 1,” Pritzker said Thursday, April 2.

On Tuesday, March 31, the state announced an outbreak at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, with 32 cases reported and more tests pending.

Ezike said people who were infected at Stateville were moved into a separate part of the facility, and the number hospitalized from the facility decreased to 16 Thursday from 19 Wednesday.

“Again, here’s another glimmer of hope—three people recovered and were released from the hospital,” she said.

HEALTH CARE COVERAGE & WORKFORCE: Gov. JB Pritzker said Wednesday, April 1, that more than 1,100 former health care professionals and those who practice out of state have responded to his call to renew or apply for licenses in Illinois so they can join the workforce treating COVID-19 patients.

He said many of the out-of-state practitioners are actually Illinois residents who practice in border communities just outside the state.

“Right now those numbers are running about half-and-half, with more applications coming in every day,” he said. “It’s really incredible to watch. The people of this state are truly so deeply genuinely caring.”

But Pritzker had less kind words to say about President Donald Trump, who reportedly has refused requests by Democratic and Republican governors to reopen the enrollment period for people seeking insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“Some White House officials are saying that the President will not be reopening the insurance marketplace in response to the coronavirus,” Pritzker said. “Frankly, this is leadership malpractice. Now more than ever, we need as many people as possible to have access to health care to seek out testing if we’re ever going to be able to fight COVID-19 and eliminate it as a major risk to our people.”

NOVEMBER ELECTION: During his daily news conference Tuesday, March 31, Gov. JB Pritzker addressed questions about voting in the November general election.

“I do think that we’re going to have to look at, for the general election, the idea that we may have to move to significant amount or maybe all mail-in ballots or at least giving people the opportunity to do that,” he said.

But, he said, that’s a decision that would have to be made by the General Assembly, and it is uncertain when the body will meet to discuss such legislation as an operating budget and other must-pass measures.

“We have to find a way to get the Legislature together. That’s going to be a decision that gets made by the legislative leaders, along with our public health professionals, to determine how you get 177 General Assembly members in the similar area and vote on things,” he said.

SCHOOL CANCELLATIONS: Indiana and Michigan governors have canceled in-person classes for the rest of the school year. When asked whether he was considering similar action on Thursday, April 2, Pritzker said, “I don’t really have a good answer for you.”

“Will school be canceled for the rest of the year is really a decision that will get made as we get closer, as we enter a peak period whenever that may be—sometime, we think, in the later half of April,” the governor said. “(When) we start to come off that peak, I think we’ll start to be able to make some decisions about what does May look like.”

The state’s public and private schools are ordered closed through April 30, coinciding with the statewide stay-at-home order.

REMOTE LEARNING DAYS: Public K-12 schools statewide were instructed to begin remote learning days Tuesday, March 31, until in-person instruction can resume, and standardized testing in the state is canceled for the year as well.

Illinois Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen Ayala was given the authority to define and give guidance on remote learning days in a recent executive order signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All schools public and private will be closed through at least April 30 after Pritzker announced Tuesday he would extend an executive order that had previously closed them through April 7. The Illinois State Board of Education’s remote learning guidance applies to public schools but the state’s nonpublic schools are encouraged to use it to inform similar programs, according to an ISBE guidance document.

“Remote learning will look different for every district and maybe even for every school. School districts will create plans based upon their local resources and their needs,” Pritzker said at a COVID-19 news conference Tuesday in Chicago.

Ayala wrote in a letter posted to ISBE’s website that remote learning recommendations “strongly encourage” local districts to adopt grading models of “pass or incomplete” that “embrace the principle of ‘no educational harm to any child.’”

The remote learning guidance is based on recommendations from a 63-member advisory group of teachers, students, paraprofessionals, related service personnel, principals, and district and regional superintendents. Each district is to interpret the guidance individually and come up with a plan that fits their district.

The emergency rules on remote learning days allow for e-learning or other kinds of remote learning days, which must be approved by the school’s or district’s superintendent or chief administrator.

CHICAGO ARTS RELIEF: Gov. JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday, April 1, the formation of a new relief fund to support artists and performers who have been temporarily put out of work by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Arts for Illinois Relief Fund will provide financial assistance in the form of grants to artists, artisans and cultural organizations that have been impacted by the virus. The fund is a partnership between the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and several charitable foundations.

“Art has always been of incredible importance to me and to my family. But of course, so many of the usual ways of enjoying art together, have had to be put on pause. And tragically, our creative communities have felt the financial hardship,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said the relief fund has raised more than $4 million so far, including $1 million from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Artists can apply for grants and individuals can make donations through the program’s website: artsforillinois.org.

FILING A CLAIM: The Illinois department tasked with overseeing unemployment benefits is employing an alphabetized schedule to handle “an unprecedented volume” of claims.

Claims now must be filed online and by phone on days and at times set by the Illinois Department of Employment Security based on the first letter of the filer’s last name. Similar systems to manage “increased web traffic” and “high call volumes” were initiated in Colorado and New York as well, according to the department.

Illinoisans whose last names begin with the letters A through M may file online claims on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and speak to someone by phone on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Those whose last names begin with the letters N through Z can file their claims at the department’s website on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and call on Mondays and Wednesdays, also from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Anyone unable to register their claims on the designated days can file online on Saturdays or call on Fridays.

“IDES is currently working through an unparalleled number of unemployment benefit claims and questions, both online and through the call center,” according to a news release.

HUMAN SERVICES FACILITIES: The Illinois Department of Human Services is closing 61 facilities designed to be “one-stop” hubs for individuals and families to receive job services, medical assistance, budget help and food stamps, it announced Monday, March 30, in response to social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of novel coronavirus in the state.

The 14 Family Community Resource Centers remaining open will have 30 percent to 50 percent fewer personnel, with the remaining workforce operating remotely.

Department Secretary Grace Hou is also transitioning at least 80 in-person local office caseworkers into Access Benefits Electronically agents, adding to the existing call center staffers.

According to a news release, the Human Services Department’s goal is to keep as few resource centers open to in-person benefits as possible.

ETHICS REFORMS: A task force charged with recommending ethics and lobbying reforms in Illinois missed its March 31 deadline to produce a final report due to social distancing requirements brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak, but leaders from both parties said Tuesday they remain committed to the concept.

“The Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform remains committed to our task of developing recommendations for meaningful reforms to the way lobbyists and elected officials conduct themselves,” Rep. Greg Harris and Sen. Elgie Sims, Democratic co-chairs of the task force, said in a joint statement. “We have completed our meetings, heard from stakeholders and are working through the proposals that have been put before us. However, due to the ongoing crisis, more time will be necessary to complete our work.”

Republican Sens. Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, and John Curran, of Downers Grove, said “no one could have anticipated the challenges we would face” regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Illinois residents should know that this delay in no way negates the critical work our commission was doing, nor does it mean our need for ethics reform has fallen on the wayside,” McConchie and Curran said in a joint written statement. “Rather, we look forward to the time when we can all meet again and fulfill our goal of submitting recommendations to bring real ethics reform to Illinois.”

The General Assembly formed the task force last year in the wake of a sprawling federal investigation of alleged public corruption that led to indictments of three sitting lawmakers.

WRONG MASKS SENT: As state leaders try to gather as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as possible to distribute to health care workers treating COVID-19 patients, Gov. JB Pritzker says the federal government sent Illinois 300,000 of the wrong type of mask.

In his daily press briefing about the novel coronavirus disease outbreak Monday, March 30, in Chicago, Gov. JB Pritzker said the state’s third shipment of relief supplies from the feds arrived Sunday, but likely includes 300,000 surgical masks instead of the N95 respirator masks Illinois requested.

“While we do not have a final count on this yet, I can say with certainty that what they sent were not the N95 masks that were promised, but instead were surgical masks, which is not what we asked for,” Pritzker said.

Made of thin fabric and held loosely onto the face, surgical masks do not provide as much protection against COVID-19 as N95 masks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Surgical masks create a loose barrier for the mouth and nose against coughs and sneezes, while tight-fitting N95 masks are able to “filter small particles from the air and prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.”

“PPE is the first line of defense for our health care workers. It’s not a luxury that they should have to ration,” Pritzker said.

A consistent critic of the federal response, Pritzker added that the size of the latest federal shipment “still pales in comparison to our requests and appears to be even smaller than our previous two shipments.”

FIELD HOSPITAL AT MCCORMICK PLACE: Gov. JB Pritzker announced Monday, March 30, that Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center will soon be converted into a field hospital for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms who do not require intensive care.

As Chicago and Cook County continue to be hotspots for the disease with more than 3,700 combined cases, Pritzker said using the convention center as a medical facility will help free up space at traditional hospitals.

“McCormick will be dedicated mostly to non-acute COVID-19 patients,” Pritzker said, “people whose condition could benefit from the care of medical professionals but who are not likely to need a formal ICU.”

Using $15 million of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Illinois National Guard is working with FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers to set up 3,000 beds by the end of April. Pritzker said he expects 500 to be set up by the end of this week.

“The first place we are directing our patients is to existing hospital beds, maximizing our underutilized hospitals first,” Pritzker said. “If we never have to go beyond our existing facilities, we will all be extremely happy. But since we can’t guarantee that, and in fact, we don’t have the data yet to suggest otherwise, we’re actively building out capacity.”

Workers are also in the process of setting up temporary beds at closed hospitals in the suburban Chicago cities of Blue Island and Elgin.

MORTGAGE AND RENT: Foreclosure sales and evictions have been suspended for single family and multifamily home loans financed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the department noted some may be eligible for forbearance or reduction of mortgage payments for up to 12 months. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced the guidance measures Monday, March 30.

Evictions and foreclosures are also suspended for 60 days on Federal Housing Authority single-family home loans and reverse mortgages for seniors.

Per IDFPR, affected homeowners or renters should contact their landlord and mortgage servicer immediately to learn about mortgage relief programs. Certified housing counselors through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can be found at www.HUD.gov.

The department also urges renters to contact legal assistance agencies, and they urged visiting https://www.carpls.org/client-services/ for free legal advice.

Veterans with questions about mortgage options can call the St. Paul VA Regional Office at 1-877-827-3702; the Illinois Attorney General’s Mortgage Helpline is available at 1-866-544-7151; and IDFPR can be called at 1-888-473-4858.

STUDENT LOANS: Interest rates on federal student loans held by the U.S. Department of Education have been reduced to 0 percent until Sept. 30, and repayment on those loans is suspended until the same date. Involuntary collection on federal student loans, including wage garnishments and offsets, will be suspended until that date as well. Credit reporting will take place as if the borrower were making timely payments.

Borrowers can find out if a loan is a federal student loan by visiting the Department of Education’s National Student Loan Data System at https://studentaid.gov/ or by calling 1-800-433-3243 or 1-800-730-8913 (TTD).

Borrowers are urged to contact their student loan servicer as quickly as possible if they are having trouble making payments. Those having trouble with their student loan servicers are encouraged to call the IDPFR Division of Banking at 217-785-2900 or the Attorney General’s Student Loan Helpline at 1-800-455-2456.

BANKS AND CREDIT UNIONS: In its guidance for banks and credit unions on Monday, March 30, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation “strongly urges” the entities “respond to borrowers affected by the current economic environment, such as small businesses, hourly workers, and independent contractors,” according to a news release.

IDFPR is encouraging all banks and credit unions to offer payment deferment at no cost while eliminating fees such as late payment, ATM usage and overdraft charges, and increasing daily ATM withdrawal and credit card limits.

The department also guides banks and credits unions to: provide new loans on favorable terms; ease restrictions on check cashing; alert customers to the heightened risk of scams; remind customers to contact their financial institutions before entering into unsolicited financial assistance programs; and ensure that consumers don’t experience service disruptions should the institutions close their offices.

If a lender closes its doors for health reasons, they must provide notice to IDFPR and provide reasonable ways to ensure borrowers can make payments to avoid delinquency, per the release.

HEALTH CARE ACCESS: Gov. JB Pritzker said Saturday, March 29, that to help meet the growing need for hospital space there, the city of Chicago and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working to convert the McCormick Place Convention Center into a field hospital. He said details of that project would be released in the next few days.

To help make sure all Illinoisans have access to health care, Pritzker said his administration is seeking waivers from the federal government to make Medicaid more accessible. Those include requests to suspend the annual renewal process, to fast-track enrollment by waiving many of the verification requirements, guaranteeing that people who are uninsured will have their costs covered and covering all out-of-pocket costs for people who have regular insurance.

GROCERY STORES: Gov. JB Pritzker on Saturday, March 29, announced that after discussions with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, grocery stores throughout the state will soon start implementing a new set of “best practices” to prevent the virus from spreading in stores.

Customers will soon see signs at the entrance and hear regular announcements on the public address systems reminding them to maintain six feet of separation from fellow shoppers. Stores will also place markers on the floor near checkout aisles indicating where people should stand.

Other measures include installing shield guards at checkout counters to protect employees, a temporary prohibition on reusable bags, offering the option of curbside pickup and encouraging the use of self-service checkout.

BENEFITS FOR NEEDY: Gov. JB Pritzker announced new measures benefitting the homeless and people on supplemental nutrition programs Friday, March 27.

The governor announced the expansion of SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits. According to the governor’s office, a combination of federal law and the state’s requests for special waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will mean $80 million more in federal money for SNAP benefits to Illinoisans.

“SNAP is a federally funded program that puts food on the table for nearly 900,000 Illinois households, feeding over 1.7 million people in our state and stimulating our economy,” said Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou, noting benefits could nearly double for some Illinoisans.

Officials said while IDHS offices remain open, SNAP applicants are encouraged to sign up online by visiting DHS.illinois.gov/helpishere.

The governor’s office also announced $6 million in new funding to support the 19 Continuums of Care for homeless persons across the state, along with $2 million to support housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness.

FEDERAL PRESSURE: Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday, March 27, continued to urge President Donald Trump to employ the Defense Production Act to force U.S. companies to manufacture needed medical supplies such as ventilators.

“It will prioritize Americans over foreign countries and allow states on the front lines to access the equipment we so badly need,” Pritzker said. “He needed … to activate the Defense Production Act weeks ago or even yesterday, but it still will make a massive difference in our national health care system if he simply moves quickly.”

Trump issued a statement Friday afternoon saying he would do so to require General Motors to “accept, perform, and prioritize federal contracts for ventilators,” and Pritzker said it was good news.

“So I’m so pleased to hear that there’s some movement, but that’s only GM. That’s terrific. But we need more, we need much more,” Pritzker said.

The governor said the market for medical equipment and personal protective equipment, or PPE, is “like the Wild West,” and states are competing against each other as well as the federal government and foreign nations in their attempts to procure the medical gear.

“That’s why you need the Defense Production Act to be invoked, so that we can get the ventilators here in the United States for what our needs are here,” Pritzker said. “We’re making them in the United States, we should be able to buy them here in the United States. But, you know, that’s not happening for everybody today, and there certainly aren’t enough ventilators going around.”

CHILD CARE PROVIDERS:  Child care providers licensed to operate during the pandemic will be provided with stipends to address added costs, according to the governor’s office. Licensed homes will receive $750, while centers with one to two classrooms will receive $2,000 and centers with three or more classrooms open will receive $3,000.

Applications for the stipend became available Monday, March 30, to providers through their local Child Care Resource and Referral agency, and more information on child care providers is available at https://emergencycare.inccrra.org/ or by calling the state’s toll free number at 888-228-1146.

MARIJUANA SALES: More than $109 million of marijuana products were purchased in Illinois in the first three months of legalization, and the third month of sales was on par with the first two despite a stay-at-home order being in place for 11 days in March.

Preliminary numbers show statewide adult-use cannabis sales in March totaled $35.9 million, according to a news release Thursday, April 2, from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Dispensaries across the state sold more than 812,000 items over the 31-day period. The March sales topped February’s $34.8 million and fell short of January’s $39.2 million.

Illinois residents bought about $27 million of marijuana products in March, while out-of-state residents purchased about $8.8 million. None of the figures include taxes collected, and they are not broken down in sales before the implementation of the March 20 stay-at-home order levied by Gov. JB Pritzker or after. That order did not apply to cannabis sales, which were deemed essential.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, designated caregivers are allowed to pick up medical marijuana for the patients they care for, and dispensaries can sell marijuana to medical patients or caregivers on a public walkway or curb adjacent to the dispensary property. Dispensaries are not permitted to deliver medical cannabis to a home, however.

The exemptions, which are extended until April 30 along with the stay-at-home order, do not apply to recreational marijuana sales. Those must still take place inside the limited access area of the dispensary.

U.S. CENSUS: Gov. JB Pritzker also noted that Wednesday, April 1, was Census Day in the United States. All people are required to report where they resided on that day. But the numbers are also used to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending are distributed, including roughly $34 billion per year that flow to Illinois for things like education, child care, workforce training, transportation and health care.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census of all residents be conducted every 10 years in order to apportion representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The state of Illinois is spending $29 million as part of an effort to get an accurate count, and Pritzker said because of the outbreak, the state is now focusing that money mostly on outreach programs that target hard-to-count populations – rural communities, minority communities and low-income individuals and families, among others.

He also noted that because of the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau has temporarily suspended sending census workers into the field to do door-to-door canvassing of people who have not yet filled out their census forms.

People can fill out their census forms online this year, even by using a smartphone, by visiting My2020Census.gov. It can also be completed by phone at 844-330-2020.

FARM FORECAST: Despite projected increases in corn and soybean plantings this year after a disastrous 2019 planting season, farmers are gripped by uncertainty surrounding spring weather and the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual prospective plantings report on Tuesday, March 31, which shows how many acres farmers of major crops intend to plant this spring. Illinois farmers are expected to plant 11.3 million acres of corn and 10.5 million acres of soybeans this planting season, according to the report.

If all expected acreage is planted, that would be an increase of 8 percent for corn and 6 percent for soybeans over last year, when record precipitation from January to June decreased plantings and dropped production by 18 percent for corn and 20 percent for soybeans.

Although acreage projections for 2020 “are probably in the ballpark,” said Mark Tuttle, president of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, any rebound from last year could be stifled by the economic shock caused by COVID-19.

“The price of corn and beans are very poor right now,” said Tuttle, who grows about 900 acres of the two crops in northern Illinois.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drives down the price of oil, gasoline prices across the country have plummeted, with many Illinois pumps below $2 per gallon. That has stalled production of ethanol, a gasoline alternative made from corn. Some ethanol plants have idled while being pushed toward unprofitability.

“When a lot of these acres were bid for, and talked about a month ago, none of this was foreseen at that time,” Tuttle said, adding that 40 percent of U.S. corn production is used for ethanol.

The economic hit could be lessened, Tuttle said, by exporting more corn, feeding more to livestock or switching some soybean acreage to corn, but that will not offset all damage.

“I think the farmers will plant their crops without a problem, we always do,” he added. “It’s a matter of marketing on the other end of this crop is going to be tough. It’s going to be tough to make money.”

COUNTY FAIRS: The social distancing guidelines that led Illinois county fairs to cancel off-season events on their grounds through the end of April is one part of a financial impact double-whammy, a trade official said.

Many local fairs use revenue from off-season events and activities to “pay the bills,” Ken Tyrrell, president of the state’s Association of Agricultural Fairs, said Friday, March 27.

Guidelines from Gov. JB Pritzker’s office regulating the number of people allowed to congregate shrank over the past few weeks from 1,000 to 50 to, finally, 10. County fairs canceled expositions, contests and other events back when that number was 250.

The other problem, Tyrrell said, is a delay in reimbursements from the comptroller’s office for costs incurred last year. Under statute, the state is responsible for paying county fairs 66.67 percent of what organizers spent on agricultural premiums. That includes activities related to horticulture, poultry, livestock, horse races and rodeos.

Tyrrell said fair organizers “have never received that” — in recent years, they were reimbursed 25 percent of eligible costs.

“That’s beginning to hurt a lot of fairs in the state of Illinois. We’re told it’s been at the comptroller’s office since December,” he said. “Possibly if the state would pay their bills, it would really help fairs.”

County fairs in Illinois begin hosting their main events in June. If the novel coronavirus pandemic continues into the summer, forcing fairs to begin cancelling, Tyrrell said “it would be devastating.”

Tyrrell is the vice president of the Sandwich Fair’s board in northern Illinois’ DeKalb County, one of the largest in the state in terms of fair entrants. He said county organizers of summer events have not yet discussed fair cancellations, and are taking “a wait-and-see attitude.”

“I’m being optimistic, and I’m thinking this will take care of itself by the first of June,” he said. “The main concern right now is that we’ve lost revenue from cancelling off-season events and lost revenue, and the state of Illinois not paying us what we’re entitled to.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.

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