McLean County Leaders Balk At Flouting Pritzker | WGLT

McLean County Leaders Balk At Flouting Pritzker

May 14, 2020

Small-town officials in McLean County said they were all on board with the proposed Heart of Illinois multicounty regional reopening plan right up until a Peoria area official said they would go ahead even without approval from Gov. JB Pritzker

Then Pritzker raised the possibility that communities could forfeit aid from FEMA if they reopen without approval.

“We did not like the statement he made that he was going to buck the governor regardless of whether he said yay or nay. That basically made us step back and take another look and say do we really want to endorse this plan?” said Downs Village Mayor Mike James.

The McLean County Mayor’s Association met Wednesday night and has taken a more calibrated approach. James says the association will issue a public letter supporting the elements of the plan.

“In principle we like what this has laid out, but we are not willing to implement anything that does not pass the governor’s test,” said James.

Mayor Chris Koos of Normal said he has a similar position.

“We would like the governor to give consideration to the Heart of Illinois plan. If he chooses not to, we would not go forward,” said Koos.

McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre said he was polling County Board members on Thursday to determine the county’s response. His proposal to send a letter to the governor pushing the Heart of Illinois plan received a lukewarm reception from the County Board’s Executive Committee on Tuesday, with opinions ranging from adhering to the Restore Illinois plan to having the county go it alone and open sooner. 

Koos said Bloomington-Normal and county officials certainly understand the community is not out of the woods.

“While it’s not increasing much, our COVID-19 cases are increasing in this community. So, we’re going to be cautious and hold the course,” said Koos.

Danvers Mayor Tom Caisley said residents of his town are cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reopening.

"We're concerned about our older residents and those in higher risk groups, but we'd like to encourage the governor to be proactive," said Caisley.

Caisley said he has a reservation about the Heart of Illinois plan if applied to McLean County. Regardless of when reopening happens, he said he is concerned about the loss of the testing site at the Interstate Center in Bloomington, now set to happen May 22. He said that will help signal the presence of the virus.

"The key is free testing. If you have people stretched to get food on the table, they're going to wing it, and take that risk to put food on the table," said Caisley.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner and McLean County Board member Chuck Erickson, who presented the plan to reopen the county on May 23, haven't returned calls seeking comment.

It’s not clear how much federal money is at stake for local governments should they reopen ahead of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan. The governor said Wednesday he would withhold federal dollars “for damages they cause because they ignored the law.” 

City of Bloomington spokesperson Nora Dukowitz said the city doesn’t know how much money it can expect from the federal government. 

"We are keeping track of COVID-related expenses, but from our understanding, guidelines related to this disaster are still being developed, so we aren't sure yet what would qualify for reimbursement, Dukowitz said. 

The Town of Normal said it has incurred $64,000 in COVID-19-related expenses, including supplies and personnel costs. Finance Director Andrew Huhn said FEMA informed the town it will 75% of approved expenses.

ISU's Response

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz issued a statement Thursday indicating the university won't participate in any regional reopening plan that gets ahead of the governor. 

"Illinois State will follow state and local regulations while providing our students with the premier on-campus university experience that has been the foundation of our strength and stability for decades," Dietz said. 

He said the university will soon communicate its approach to the Restore Illinois blueprint "regarding the safe and gradual return to on-campus operations over the summer."

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