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East Peoria Is Opening Up. Will Other Cities Follow?

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio

East Peoria Mayor John Kahl announced Friday he is forging ahead with his Tri-County Phased Reopening Plan in the face of Governor J.B. Pritzker's modified stay-at-home order.

Kahl said he believes COVID-19 is plateauing, not spiking, in Central Illinois, and it's time to restore a sense of normalcy by allowing businesses to gradually reopen with some social distancing measures and other restrictions in place, at least initially.

Twenty other elected officials from four counties signed onto the letter Kahl sent to Gov. Pritzker earlier this week. Those included the mayors of Bartonville, Chillicothe, Dunlap, Princeville, and Hanna City in Peoria County.

"I don't think the mayor would have that authority under the statute," Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos said when asked about her response if a Peoria County mayor followed Kahl's lead. "I mean, it's the governor's power as written. So I don't see anyone other than the governor that has that authority, frankly."

Hoos said she will continue enforcing the stay-at-home order on a case-by-case basis, such as when a man was charged with aggravated battery for coughing on people intentionally at a Peoria grocery store.

Canton Mayor Kent McDowell, who endorsed Kahl's plan, wrote a letter to his local newspaper on Thursday asking citizens to continue complying with local, state, and federal guidelines while he collaborates with other mayors on a reopening plan.

"I have been working diligently, along with a group of local downstate mayors (including the mayors of Pekin, Peoria, Washington, and others), to put together a proposal to present to the Governor so that we can begin reopening our local economies and doing so safely," he wrote. "We hope that this plan will ease some of the burden on our small business owners throughout Central Illinois."

Woodford County State's Attorney Greg Minger said he won't enforce or prosecute Pritzker's stay-at-home order, and he's informed Sheriff Matt Smith, Health Department Administrator Hillary Aggertt, and local mayors of his decision to effectively allow churches and businesses to reopen, barring a gubernatorial response.

But Eureka Mayor Scott Zimmer told business owners that his city will continue complying with Pritzker's order regardless.

Kahl said Friday he didn't expect such a statement from Tazewell County State's Attorney Stu Umholtz, who has been unavailable for comment this week. Assistant State's Attorney Mike Holly did briefly touch upon the subject at a Tazewell County Board meeting earlier this week.

"There's a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of uncertainty right now," said Holly. "But again, if there was any kind of official policy in Tazewell County from the state's attorney, I'll defer to him on that."

Washington Mayor Gary Manier said Friday he doesn't believe his community is quite ready to begin easing restrictions yet, but said he hopes the upcoming weeks gives local officials enough data to make an argument for a phased reopening the week of May 11.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis declined to endorse Kahl's reopening plan earlier this week, citing a lack of "medical metrics." He agreed with Hoos that reopening businesses in contravention of Pritzker's order wasn't within his authority.

"I don't know, and I've asked our legal, we haven't seen anything that would allow emergency powers of a mayor to override executive orders of a governor," he said. "And I think that's probably where we're looking at that from, is really, we don't see that a mayor has the ability to say we're going to disregard an executive order."

Ardis said his own plan is geared towards convincing the governor's staff that Central Illinois should reopen this month.

"We are going to bring forward something that I think is going to comply with the concerns that the governor has with opening the economy up a safe way, and not putting a lot more pressure on the health department and medical communities, and getting this area back in business," Ardis said.

Pritzker hinted Friday some regions may begin reopening before May 30 if they demonstrate 14 days of declining COVID-19 cases and low ICU bed occupancy.  But when asked Friday for a response to East Peoria's self-initiated phased reopening plan, Pritzker said this:

"People who defy the order and who simply go out and go about their business as if there's no pandemic, and certainly leaders who are encouraging that, it's a good thing we've expanded testing across the state, because a lot of people are going to get sick and need to be tested in those areas," the governor said. "And frankly, it's a good thing we've left hospital beds available, because they're going to end up in the hospital, too."

Three COVID-19 collection sites are online in Peoria with a daily allotment of 150 each. The Carver testing site in South Peoria used 35 tests. The East Bluff site tested 135 people. The Sheridan site is only open on weekends.

As of Friday, the Tri-County area reported 149 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Peoria County reports 95, Tazewell reports 41, and Woodford reports 13. There are seven reported deaths in the region.

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