Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
A plan to reopen Madison County will be voted on Tuesday after county officials asked for more time to study the legality of the plan.
During a special meeting Friday of the Madison County Health Board, members voted to table until next week a plan to reopen the county that would defy Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to open the state on a gradual and regional basis. The action to delay a vote came at the request of State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons.
The meeting was the second special meeting to discuss plans for reopening, the first of which took place Thursday. During that meeting, Bond County attorney Tom DeVore argued that the current stay-at-home order was beyond the governor’s power.
Gibbons said his office would need until at least Tuesday to study the plan, which wasn’t made available to the public, to “limit” or “eliminate” any liabilities it could create for the county.
“At first blush, there are some things that concern me,” said Gibbons, a Democrat. “This will give us more time to put us on a better legal footing.”
The plan to reopen
The plan, which Madison County Chairman Kurt Prenzler presented to the Health Board, which is made up of County Board members, came hours before the meeting. It was lauded by many County Board members, while some called for more time. Prenzler, a Republican, acknowledged that the plan was presented last-minute and that some might need more time to study it.
The resolution refers to the county as a constitutional republic seeking to balance the goals of public health, constitutional rights, improving the local economy and helping businesses and churches reopen in a safe and responsible way.
If passed, the resolution would lift any “general stay-at-home directive” in Madison County while requiring any businesses, churches or other entities that want to reopen to send a notice to the County Health Board along with a plan detailing how it will reopen in a safe and responsible way, with phasing.
The plan would defy the Democratic governor’s own five-phase regional plan to reopen the state.
Once that individual plan has been submitted, that entity could then open, according to the resolution. The county Health Department will evaluate the plans and conduct investigations, if necessary, to determine whether the plan is “reasonable and does not jeopardize public health.”
If the health department finds that a particular plan was not suitable, the business could be ordered to close — by a court of law, if necessary.
The county’s plan also deems all businesses as essential and allows businesses to impost their own restriction on entry or use of their stores as they deem appropriate.
The plan drew approval from the majority of the members of the County Board, which said the reopening was necessary to get the county back to work and help struggling businesses.
“I wholeheartedly support the spirit and intent of this resolution to lift the stay-at-home order,” County Board member Don Moore said. “I overwhelmingly feel like we’re ready to take this on and open up in a responsible fashion.”
Erika Harriss of Glen Carbon, a County Board member who also serves on the Open Up Madison County Again committee, said while business owners in the area are desperate to get back to work, they are eager to do so in a responsible way.
Some urge caution
However, several board members also called for a pause and urged the board not to rush on approving the plan. Board member Victor Valentine Jr. said the board needed to be “rational.”
“I’m in agreement with opening everything,” he said, “but I want to echo that we have to be responsible. It has to be safe, and we have to use good judgment. We can’t just go out and open the doors and think that it's back to normal.”
Board member Liz Dalton echoed the call for caution as the number of positive cases and deaths in the county have continued to rise.
County Health Department Director Toni Corona spoke at the end of the meeting about the county’s fight against COVID-19. She said the department could handle the “intended or unintended consequences” of beginning to reopen the county, but said there is a risk the health service could be overwhelmed.
“The increased work that the resolution potentially implies on the health department’s part, is ‘bring it on,’” she said. “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.”
Another special meeting of the Health Board will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, where a vote will be held on the plan.
Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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