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Uncertainty Dulls Excitement for 'Restore HOI' Reopening Roadmap

Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman speaks during a recent community discussion on COVID-19.
Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman speaks during a recent community discussion on COVID-19.

Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman said while he likes both the Restore Heart of Illinois and Tri-County regional reopening plans, there's a major stumbling block that makes him wary of adopting it without the governor's blessing - liability."If we circumvent the governor's order, we're totally liable. So the citizens and all assets of Morton are liable," he said at a town hall discussion last week. "We were just notified by our insurance carrier that if we circumvent the governor, we have no coverage for liability."

This means the village would be on the hook for attorney fees, court costs, and other legal bills incurred that would normally be picked up by the insurance company in the event of a lawsuit.

Diane Hahn, owner of Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, said she's also supportive of the Restore Heart of Illinois plan allowing bars and restaurants to reopen at reduced occupancy sooner, but she's worried about potential conflict between state and local mandates.

"The real crux in the matter for any of us who hold a state liquor license, or for any of us who hold state public health department licenses is that as things go forward here locally, we need to have the statehouse approve these things, and that's a big concern," Hahn said.

Hahn said if Gov. Pritzker doesn't approve the local plan, state license holders will find themselves in a problematic spot forcing them to abide by state, rather than local, rules.

When asked Friday about the plan's status, Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich said officials are still waiting for feedback from Pritzker's administration on the Restore Heart of Illinois reopening plan, which used medical metrics to make the case for a faster reopening in an 11-county swath of Central Illinois.

Urich said it will take seven to 10 days to ready the regional plan's details.

Dan Kouri, owner of the Lariat Steakhouse in Peoria and president of the Heart of Illinois Hospitality Group, said there's no guidance for eateries on employee temperature check requirements, table spacing mandates, or other measures in the local plan.

"What we haven't heard from the health department yet is what they expect us to do," said Kouri. "We're hearing bits and pieces from everybody. We're hearing bits and pieces from the city. But there's really not a game plan in print, or where they have really said, here's what we want you to do."

Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said more Restore HOI plan guidance will be released this week.

"I can only imagine a retail that's about to be able to open in a few days would like to understand what they need to have ready and be prepared for to open up safely. Our goal is on Friday to release the guidance through our website, and then really be able to highlight those implementations Tuesday after the holiday [Memorial Day]," she said.

Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO J.D. Dalfonso said Friday that it's recommended state license holders continue to follow state rules. However, he said he believes there's some positive signs for finding flexibility, like the Catholic dioceses across Illinois working out an arrangement with the Pritzker administration to restore some services.

"I think we're going to see our local leaders go to bat for these businesses," said Dalfonso. "To say, this is a different scenario. We are taking safety as a top concern when we're looking to recover."

The village of Morton operates its own sewer, water, and gas utilities. Like other local governments, Morton has suffered a financial blow due to COVID-19. Overall village revenues are currently down about $1 million to $1.5 million. That could balloon to $4 million by year's end. Kaufman said he believes the village can weather the financial storm with its strong reserve fund and conservative fiscal approach, but help and guidance from the state is needed before moving forward with reopening plans.

"We gotta have some help from the state government on the liability issues. We can't expect the staff to run this town with a liability issue," he said.

The region has met Pritzker's standards for moving onto phase three of reopening under his statewide "Restore Illinois" plan for several weeks. But restaurants and bars would still remain closed to the public for another month under his more stringent guidelines.

The governor suggested Monday that he would stick to the four large "health regions" defined in his "Restore Illinois" plan, rather than break them down further into subregions.

"Ultimately, a decision had to be made about how to put together a plan for the entire state of Illinois and regionalize it," Pritzker said. "That's what we did. And again, I know there are people who might like this to be done on a different grouping of counties, or they might like to see certain cities open, and not the rest of their counties. I'm sure there are lots of ways to do this. But what we did was driven by, again, scientists and epidemiologists, but also a drive by me for the real desire to reopen businesses, again with safety precautions every step of the way."

Pritzker said he's read "most, if not all" of the regional reopening plans submitted to him, and said many are "well-crafted."

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said he's prepared to "move forward" with the plan even if Pritzker says no, but Urich would only say he's hopeful the governor will provide feedback to the plan's architects by the time the Restore Heart of Illinois plan is ready to launch, near the end of the month.

Pritzker threatened to withhold federal reimbursements from communities which deviate from his executive order last week. Businesses and establishments that open in violation of the governor's order could face a Class A misdemeanor under emergency rules quietly filed by Pritzker's administration last week.

Kaufman said the lesser population density of Morton, when compared to Chicago, should be taken into account in the governor's reopening phases when it comes to salons and other state-licensed businesses.

"If the governor goes beyond that [May 29], I'll be very disappointed. We need some help," he said.

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