West Central Illinois is just a few days away from implementing new COVID-19 restrictions if trends don't begin to reverse.
Gov. JB Pritzker visited Peoria and Ottawa on Thursday to drive home how the region is teetering on the brink of regressing backward.
Peoria and LaSalle counties are the two hotspots in Region 2 that stretches from Rock Island to Bloomington.
"The most impactful change starts locally. I'll be frank. We need to see some change here in the Peoria area when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic," Pritzker said. "As much as I'd like to, this virus isn't something that we can wish away. So, we have to act responsibly and collectively to protect the people that we love."
As of Wednesday, Region 2 had a 4.3% positivity rate, with seven days straight of increases, and a three-day increase in hospitalization rates. The criteria for implementing new restrictions include an increase in positivity rates for seven out of 10 consecutive days, plus a sustained seven-day increase in hospital admissions.
"So if this region has four more days of people getting sicker and needing a hospital bed, that means bars will close again, and a potential reduction in service at restaurants, and smaller capacity limits on other activities," Pritzker said.
That doesn't mean a full return to Phase 3 of the governor's "Restore Illinois" plan that ended on June 26, however. New restrictions would be implemented region-wide, but individual counties within the region would have some wiggle room to narrowly tailor restrictions to areas that are driving their localized COVID-19 spikes--such as bars, offices, or outdoor sporting activities.
Officials in Peoria County began sounding the alarm that the region was headed down the wrong path on mitigating COVID-19 weeks ago. Those calls were amplified last week, when the state Department of Public Health declared Peoria, LaSalle, Randolph and Adams counties to be at "coronavirus warning levels."
In Peoria County, health department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said positivity rates have doubled in the past two weeks, adding much of the county's spike is attributed to new cases in people ages 29 and younger getting together in large, maskless social gatherings. Another factor is travelers returning from Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, or Texas--all of which have fewer COVID-19 restrictions in place.
"This virus, as it is novel, it is an equal opportunity virus. And without a vaccine, or extensive medical treatment, we are going to be relying on our first and best defense, and that is social distancing and face coverings," Hendrickson said.
State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, said taking basic precautionary measures to protect yourself and others isn't a political issue.
"Even though we're approaching an election, this is not a time for Democrats and Republicans to do battle against each other on the issue of public health," said Spain, adding as a millennial himself, younger people should take the threat posed by the virus seriously.
Hendrickson has said while younger people generally suffer milder COVID-19 symptoms, they often become "super-spreaders" in the community.
State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, said he's "alarmed" to see how many people aren't wearing their masks properly, as well as what he's hearing from multiple businesses whose employees are struggling to deal with customers who refuse to wear a face covering, even when asked.
"If we want to turn this around, then we have to do our part," Koehler said. "And the first, most simple thing is just wear a mask and keep your distance."
Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said taking a step back now would devastate small businesses, many of which are just beginning to get back on their feet after Illinois' extended stay-at-home order.
"Our businesses need to be open. They need more business. Taking a step now is very likely to be the end of a lot of our small businesses," Ardis said. "They can't take it."
Illinois reported 1,772 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday--a two-month high water mark. IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said it ultimately comes back to the three basic W's: washing hands, wearing a face covering, and watching your distance.
"We are not tone-deaf to the struggles that people are facing, and the desire to just get back to normal," she said. "But we ask you to be as safe as possible as we learn to co-exist with COVID."
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