The Illinois General Assembly has canceled three session days next week as public institutions continue to try to grapple with the effects of the spreading coronavirus.
Also Wednesday, Secretary of State Jesse White’s office said it will ban large gatherings of people in the Capitol to prevent the spread of the virus while the University of Illinois System announced that all classes would be held online or remotely.
Another six cases of the virus were reported in Illinois since Tuesday, five of them in Cook County and another in Lake County. That brings to 25 the number of confirmed cases in the state.
Earlier Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day parade – which can draw a million spectators to the Loop – is being postponed because of fears it would help spread the virus. Two other parades in the city are also being postponed and the Chicago River will not be dyed green this year as part of the holiday observation.
Both the House and Senate were scheduled to be in session from Wednesday through Friday next week. Both opted to cancel as concerns about the spread of COVID-19 continued to mount.
“When the state association for emergency doctors cancels its Capitol visit citing public health concerns, it should give us all reason to re-examine our schedules and priorities,” Senate President Don Harmon said in a statement. “Given the recommendations for social distancing as a safeguard to slow the spread of this virus, the Illinois Senate is going to do its part. We will constantly monitor the situation and make future decisions based on best practices and advice from the state’s public health and emergency preparedness professionals.”
The Illinois College of Emergency Physicians was scheduled to hold its two-day lobbying visit next week along with a reception for legislators and staff, but cancelled over concerns about the coronavirus.
The House notified members that it also was cancelling next week, although the announcement was not accompanied by a statement from House Speaker Michael Madigan. However, in an interview prior to the announcement, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the House was “monitoring developments with appropriate offices.”
“We’ll continue to do that,” he said. “Our first priority is safety of the public and the members and the staff. We’ll do whatever is appropriate.”
As of now, the House and Senate are scheduled to be in session March 24-27 and March 31-April 2. The House is also scheduled to be in session on April 3. Both chambers are then scheduled to take a two-week spring break. The spring session is scheduled to end May 31.
At his daily briefing on the CORVID-19 situation, Gov. JB Pritzker said state officials are looking at access to public buildings, “not just the Thompson Center, but other state facilities.”
“For the time being, we haven’t issued guidance around that,” he said. “I do think it’s worthwhile for us all to pay attention to the guidance by the CDC in the concentrations issue. Buildings that have hundreds or even thousands of people in them aren’t necessarily buildings that need to close. It’s really a question of proximity of people to one another.”
The standard that’s been mentioned is you can catch the virus if you’re within six feet of a person who has it for 10 minutes.
Secretary of State Jesse White’s office said Wednesday that it is cancelling all permits for events and large tours of the Capitol. During the spring session, many interest groups hold rallies in the Capitol and lobby days when members buttonhole lawmakers to press their issues. School groups are also frequent visitors.
White spokesman Dave Druker said the decision was made after talking to health experts, Pritzker and others.
“We thought out of an abundance of precaution and safety and our concern for the public to do this, as best we can to reduce large crowds,” Druker said.
A list of affected groups was not available Wednesday.
“We’re sending a letter to the lobbyists asking them if they could ask their clients if they could reduce their coming down here and bringing so many people,” Druker said.
He emphasized that the building remains open to the public even if large gatherings will no longer get a permit.
Meanwhile, the University of Illinois System announced that classes at its Chicago, Springfield and Urbana campuses would be held online or remotely starting March 23, which is when students at the Urbana campus return from spring break.
The campuses will remain open, but any university-sponsored events with more than 50 attendees will be suspended indefinitely starting on Friday. All university-sponsored international travel and non-essential domestic travel has been stopped until further notice.
“Our policies are rooted in our expert scientific knowledge base and exhibit an abundance of caution to take care of each other until the COVID-19 outbreak eases,” U of I System president Tim Killeen wrote in a message to the university community. “We are all in this together, and appreciate your support and understanding.”
Officials at Illinois State University and Northwestern University made similar calls Wednesday and went a step further by extending their spring breaks an additional week. ISU students are not expected to return to campus until March 23 while Northwestern students, after taking their final exams next week, will not return until April 4.
Students at the Springfield campus are on spring break this week, but it is not yet clear if they will return to class as scheduled next week. UIS spokesman Derek Schnapp said “there will be additional UIS campus-specific communication” made available on Thursday.
In the meantime, Schnapp confirmed that two upcoming events at the UIS Performing Arts Center — featuring comedian Ron White on Thursday and country music singer Josh Turner on Friday — are still a go.
Pritzker said he’s been talking with sports team owners about any steps they can take to help control the spread of the virus. Baseball season is about to get underway and both professional basketball and hockey are winding down their regular seasons and preparing for the playoffs.
“We’re considering all options here,” Pritzker said. “We have the opening days of various teams coming up in the next couple of weeks. So we want to make sure that we’re not only considering all of the options here, but considering what those opening dates are and how it might affect those teams and leagues and the public. Most important to me, of course, is the safety of the people of our state and their health.”
Pritzker thanked Lightfoot for postponing the St. Patrick’s Day parade, saying it was “this tough call, the right call for the people of Chicago.” Pritzker said all Illinoisans should take precautions, but those who are elderly or have compromised immune systems in particular should avoid large gatherings.
The six new cases of the virus involve a man in his 80s, two men in their 70s, a woman in her 50s, a man in his 50s and a man in his 40s. Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said officials are trying to determine travel histories and possible sources for the new cases to contract the virus.
Ezike also advised people who suspect they may have the virus to call ahead if they are going to an emergency room so that medical staff can take precautions to prevent further spread of CORVID-19.
“We want to make sure that everyone who comes in contact with potential cases has the appropriate personal protective equipment,” she said.
Pritzker said the administration is looking at using administrative rules to use unemployment benefits to help people who have no sick leave but are required to be in isolation because of the virus. The state is also seeking a federal waiver that would make unemployment money available for people affected by the virus.
Staff writer Brenden Moore contributed to this report. Contact Doug Finke: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr