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COVID-19 Will Worsen the Chicago–Downstate Divide

As rural legislators protest Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, they could alienate centrist voters, turning the Illinois GOP into an even more hardcore minority.

A sign at last week’s protest of Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order at the Thompson Center   Photo: AP/Nam Y. Huh

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has a plan to reopen Illinois on a regional basis. But is it going to be enough to satisfy the politicians and activists using COVID-19 to argue that Chicago and Downstate Illinois don’t share common interests — and maybe shouldn’t even share the same state?

Take state Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia. Bailey is a member of the Eastern Bloc, an informal caucus of Republican legislators from southeastern Illinois, the most conservative part of the state. Last month, Bailey filed a lawsuit in Clay County Circuit Court arguing that Pritzker doesn’t have the authority to extend his stay-at-home order beyond 30 days.

A judge agreed, but his ruling applied only to… Darren Bailey, rather than Bailey’s district and constituents. A ruling that only covers Darren Bailey wasn’t enough for Darren Bailey, so he’s amended his lawsuit to argue that the governor doesn’t have the power to shut down businesses or order residents to stay indoors at all.

Wrote Bailey’s attorney, Thomas DeVore:

“Pritzker has perverted the emergency provisions of the [Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act] in an effort to rip the sacred responsibility of the health and lives of the people away from where the Legislature placed it, being local control of county health departments or the (IDPH), and in doing so he took complete control of the free movement of every citizen within the state of Illinois. Even if well intentioned by Pritzker, his actions as governor have left every citizen in this state completely devoid of any procedural due process rights to protect their liberty…”

Even COVID-19, the nation’s deadliest health crisis in a century, has become a flashpoint for arguments over the scope of government power. On top of Bailey’s lawsuit, a church in northwestern Lena, Illinois is suing the state on the grounds that Pritzker’s order against gatherings of more than 10 reduces people of faith to “second-class citizenship.” The mayor of East Peoria is defying Pritzker by allowing hair salons and gyms in his city to reopen. And last week, protestors marched in front of the Thompson Center, one carrying a sign with the Nazi slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei, JB,” targeted at Pritzker, who is Jewish, and another with a sign reading “Heil Pritzker.”

On the surface, Metro Chicago and Downstate appear to be a blue state and a red state trying to coexist within the same borders — even on the life-and-death matter of COVID-19.

But are opponents of the stay-at-home order simply members of a radical fringe? According to a We Ask America/Capitol Fax poll of 800 Illinois voters, 71 percent approve of Pritzker’s handling of the crisis, while only 23 percent disapprove. The Effingham Daily News, the biggest newspaper in Bailey’s district, has been featuring stories on restaurants adapting to drive-thru service and school districts planning for distance learning this fall.

A protester at the Thompson Center Photo: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

In announcing his Restore Illinois plan on Tuesday, Pritzker laid out a “regional approach” to reopening the state. The plan divides the state into four areas: Northeast, Northwest, Central, and Southern. If COVID-19 cases decline more rapidly in Southern Illinois, businesses there can reopen before businesses in Chicago. Large gatherings, such as concerts or conventions, won’t be possible until a vaccine is available.

“We are one Illinois, but we are also a state covering 60,000 square miles,” Pritzker said. “Reality on the ground looks different in different parts of the state.”

However, the governor also said the state won’t reopen prematurely just because “a loud but tiny minority would like to indulge in that fantasy,” chiding elected officials who’ve encouraged defiance of the stay-at-home order.

“You’re not doing a public service for the people that elected you,” he said.

If Pritzker was addressing Darren Bailey, Bailey wasn’t listening. Bailey is promising to continue his lawsuit. Rather than following Pritzker’s plan, he believes the state should follow the Illinois Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan, which vests the responsibility for public health in the counties, not the state.

“A vaccine, a treatment, we simply cannot wait for that and [Pritzker] needs to realize that sooner than later,” Bailey told Center Square. “We need county control. That’s exactly how Illinois proposes and he continues to completely disavow that.”

Bailey may represent the views of certain conservative Downstate legislators, but he doesn’t represent the views of most Illinoisans. And when you find yourself on the same side as protestors waving Nazi slogans, you end up looking like a fringe character yourself, even if you disagree with their approach. As a result, COVID-19 may end up deepening the regional and political divides that existed in our state well before the crisis, reducing Illinois Republicans to an even more hardcore minority. In a Sun-Times column last week, Rich Miller predicted that opposition to the stay-at-home order could cost the party even more suburban seats than it lost in 2018’s Blue Wave.

“The Republican legislative leaders are powerless to stop this behavior,” Miller wrote. “As they’ve steadily lost suburban seats, Downstaters have become a much more powerful voice in the party. And they’re increasingly taking a hard-right turn since the ascension of Donald Trump.”

Pritzker is trying to acknowledge regional differences in his approach to COVID-19. Those differences created the Eastern Bloc, and they may be too deep to ever bring it over to Pritzker’s side.

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