By: Mark Glennon*
Governor JB Pritzker earlier made the extraordinary request for courts to rule that he may extend his sweeping emergency powers as long as he chooses, which would set a horrible precedent.
Tuesday he released his plan for reopening the state, called Restore Illinois, that likewise may delay that date forever.
The plan is senseless.
Extension of the plan’s logic would mean that countless activities we routinely engage in despite some level of risk should be banned until the risk is eliminated. For example, driving fatalities have dropped significantly due to travel restrictions now in place. Those travel restrictions should not be lifted, if the same thinking behind the plan is used, until cars are made entirely safe or fatalities drop to zero.
Under the plan, the state would not return to normalcy and the emergency rules would not be lifted – called Phase 5 under the plan — until various conditions are met. They might well never be met, and in any event likely would take many months.
Among those conditions are that a vaccine or highly effective treatment becomes widely available or there are no new cases whatsoever over a sustained period. But we don’t know whether or when a vaccine will ever become available. “Seventeen years after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak and seven years since the first Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) case, there is still no vaccine despite dozens of attempts to develop them.”
Nor is there any indication that a “highly effective” treatment will become available within any reasonable time. The efficacy of the two now most frequently discussed candidates, Remedesivir and hydroxychloroquine, are questionable at best.
That means no full reopening until there are no new cases over a sustained period of time which, almost certainly, will never happen. Complete elimination is a goal that is both senseless and impossible.
Still more conditions must be met under the plan before we can return to normalcy, or even to advance to earlier phases. To move from Phase 3 to Phase 4 requires, among other things, contact tracing and monitoring within 24 hours of diagnosis for more than 90% of cases in region.
But contract tracing means hiring what Pritzker called an “army” of new workers to track contact with victims, which will cost $80 million. And how are we going to get 90% of victims to sign up for contact tracing? Won’t well more than 10% opt out of participating because of privacy concerns, whether real or imagined?
Moving from Phase 3 to Phase 4 would also require a positivity rate of no more than 20% increasing no more than 10 percentage points over a 14-day period. I for one see no reliable significance in the positivity rate, which is the percentage of those getting tested who are positive for the disease. That number will be pushed and pulled in different directions depending on changes in where testing is concentrated, on whom and the volume of testing. If a particular region begins focusing on problem hotspots, for example, the rate would spike up, though that might not be representative of the region as a whole.
Each movement from one phase to another is subject to still other requirements that may be difficult to fulfill, which you can read in the plan.
The phases may be implemented by region, a feature no doubt resulting from criticism of Pritzker’s a one-size-fits all approach that clearly was not appropriate for rural areas with few infections. But regions under the new plan are huge – too huge to make any sense — just four for the whole state. The Chicago region, for example, includes rural areas of Grundy County far southwest of the city and McHenry County all the way to the Wisconsin border. Businesses in those areas are already complaining that the one-size-fits-all problem is not solved by Pritzker’s new plan.
Pritzker on Wednesday gave this answer to a question about what restaurants are supposed to do that have little hope under the plan that they could reopen before they go bankrupt: “Well, my first response to that is that I’m not the one that’s writing those rules for restaurants and bars, it is doctors and epidemiologists that I’m listening to.”
No, he makes the rules. It’s his plan. “The buck stops with me,” he said on April 8.
Insofar as he is relying on experts, he is picking which ones, and they evidently don’t include anybody who factors in lost lives from a devastated economy.
That’s perhaps the most frustrating position that many hold – failing to recognize that a poor economy kills people, too. You’d think that would be particularly obvious given the extensive publicity about Chicago’s life expectancy gap between rich and poor, the worst in the country. And decades of research have shown that people living in lower GDP economies have shorter life spans. We face a downturn perhaps as bad as the Great Depression, according to many experts, which will make most everybody poorer.
Let’s be clear: Nobody is advocating for full reopening now. Most of the social distancing measures common across the nation make sense for now, in my view. Strict caution should be taken by and on behalf of the high-risk groups – older people and those with known comorbidities. For younger people with no health problems, the risks are tiny. If, however, they are moving around in public, both they and those in high risk groups need to avoid the other.
Pick which experts you think are most credible. See what states have more balanced approaches. Look at alternative plans that will be coming. I am not judging any of that. The point, instead, is simply to say there’s one approach that’s clearly senseless, and that’s Pritzker’s.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.