Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
A Madison County resolution suggesting businesses can reopen despite statewide coronavirus restrictions offers no legal protection for business owners, according to state’s attorney Tom Gibbons.
“The resolution does not have legal effect,” Gibbons said. “It has no enforceability. It can’t be enforced against someone. It can’t be enforced by someone. No business can take that resolution to court and win a case on it.”
The resolution protects the county from legal liability, however, because it does not force anyone to abide by its guidelines, Gibbons said.
Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler said Gibbons’ interpretation of the resolution is “completely untrue,” arguing the resolution is legally binding. Gibbons disagreed, saying, “That’s just not within their statutory abilities, but he is certainly entitled to his opinion.”
Because the county has no authority to override Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase plan to gradually withdraw COVID-19 restrictions, the dispute over reopening comes down to personal decisions people will make about how much risk they are willing to tolerate.
In his daily news briefing Wednesday, the governor slammed county leaders who moved to open sooner than his plan allows.
“There is no consequence the state could impose that is greater than the harm you will do to your own community,” Pritzker said.
Prenzler, elected in 2016, is up for reelection in November. His Democratic challenger, Bob Daiber, accused the county of turning the pandemic into a political issue.
“This is a public health issue, not a political issue. I will never use a devastating situation as a stage for political theater or grandstanding, but will instead always rely on the advice of experts,” Daiber said.
Prenzler said he is acting on behalf of the people.
“I think that what we’re doing is listening to many people. We have 7,000 new unemployment claims in March and 8,000 in April. That is unprecedented.,” Prenzler said. “Is there a perfect way to do this? I think we’re trying our best. But we cannot just remain closed.”
The governor said he sympathizes with downstate leaders who face pressure from the community, but not with their decisions to reopen early.
“What I don’t have is sympathy for is those so intent on disregarding science and logic, so afraid to tell their constituents what they may not want to hear, that they put more people’s lives at risk,” Pritzker said. “You weren’t elected to do what’s easy. You were elected to do what’s right.”
Cities stick with Pritzker
Municipalities warned businesses that they would get little legal protection from the county’s resolution if they decided to reopen.
“There is a possibility of consequences to our businesses and community for not continuing to abide by the executive orders issued by the governor,” Democratic Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer wrote in a post on social media.
Businesses which operate with state-controlled licenses should be especially wary of reopening prematurely, Gibbons said. Those would include barbershops, hair salons and daycare centers.
“We’ve heard statements coming from the governor and executives that there are potential risks for those licenses,” Gibbons said. “We didn’t want them to think this somehow would prevent the state from taking action against them and we don’t want any business to lose their license or do something harmful.
The cities of Collinsville and Granite City announced they would continue to comply with Pritzker’s executive orders because of concerns about spreading COVID-19, and suggested businesses do the same. If they want to reopen, the cities recommended they seek legal advice first.
Edwardsville would also adhere to the governor’s orders, Democratic Mayor Hal Patton said.
A state lawmaker whose district include portions of Madison County said the resolution puts people and businesses at risk.
“The Madison County resolution doesn’t prioritize health and safety and puts the business and places of worship who choose to reopen, and people who choose to attend, at great risk,” state Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Collinsville, wrote in an email to the BND. “I am thankful for the many businesses who have stated their intention to continue operations under the governor’s guidelines and for the mayors who are doing the same.”
Stuart was one of seven metro-east lawmakers who sent a letter to the governor Tuesday asking him to allow the southern region to move from phase two to three in his coronavirus reopening plan.
What do public health experts say?
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike has made it clear that if the region reopens too soon without protections, it could see a surge of COVID-19 cases.
The resolution could mean more work for the Madison County Health Department, said Director Toni Corona.
“The increased work that the resolution potentially implies on the health department’s part is, ‘Bring it on,’” she said last week. “But I’m going to tell you, hear me loud, we’re maxed. We’re holding on by our fingernails right this second, and there will be a lot of consequences intended and unintended as we continue on in this response.”
Stuart, the Collinsville representative, said the key to convincing the governor to reopen southern Illinois sooner is working together with the state and health experts.
The Madison County Board of Health, which is comprised of county board members, voted 26-2 to approve the resolution. A committee of staff of medical professionals advises the health board, but it was not clear what role they played in the decision.
The health department declined to comment and directed questions to the chairman’s office.
State Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton, signed onto the letter with Stuart and other lawmakers asking the governor to reopen southern Illinois, but she questioned Madison County’s approach.
“We’ve been hearing from a lot of people that they want their businesses to open,” Bristow said. “I’m just afraid we’re exposing people, and we’ve got another almost two weeks until we get to the next phase in the governor’s plan.”
It’s possible for the region to backtrack from phase two to phase one, or remain in phase two at the end of May, if hospitalizations and infection rates begin to increase again.
Kavahn Mansouri and Kelsey Landis are reporters for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Send comments and questions about this story to email@example.com