Worsening COVID-19 numbers in Will County concern officials as new restrictions loom

'The case numbers are too high'

Local officials in Will County are stressing the seriousness of the worsening novel coronavirus pandemic in Illinois as Gov. JB Pritzker moved to implement more statewide restrictions later this week.

Pritzker announced the new restrictions on Tuesday which would go into effect Friday and mostly affect capacity levels at stores, health clubs and more.

Retail shops, including "big box" stores and health and fitness centers, will have reduced capacity at 25%. Casinos will be closed completely, marking the second time they have been shut down since the pandemic started.

During his press conference, Pritzker cited the rapid spread of the virus and dwindling hospital capacity.

In Will County, the average rolling test positivity rate for the virus reached just under 20% as of late last week, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

At hospitals in the South Suburban Region, which includes Will and Kankakee counties, the intensive care unit bed capacity has fallen under 20% with fewer than 30 staffed beds in the entire region available as of Tuesday.

Plainfield Mayor Michael Collins said he thought the need for further restrictions to slow the spread of the virus was "a real shame."

"We're going to have to do something," he said.

Some elected officials have been voicing more concern over rising case numbers and local hospitals being nearly filled to capacity.

At least one area municipality may soon move to codify an enforcement mechanism for businesses which don't comply with public health measures.

New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann said while most businesses and residents abide by mandates like mask wearing in public, he wants to see the village be able to legally enforce them as the pandemic worsens.

"The case numbers are too high," he said.

Still, some mayors and police chiefs in Will County have argued they don't have the legal authority to enforce mandates like the ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants, even as Pritzker has called on them to step up and do so.

Baldermann said he was "a little disappointed" that Pritzker has pointed fingers at local officials, but he said he hopes further action at the village level will show residents he does not condone violating these public health measures.

Collins also acknowledged the difficulty of ensuring full compliance among residents and businesses.

"I think people are just tired," Collins said.

He added the village has urged compliance from the few businesses refusing to do so and has provided some relief for those that are struggling. Still, Collins said he understands the frustration of business owners, as many are "really hurting."

The order that casinos be closed comes at a time when they have already been limited to operating at 25% of capacity.

Casinos were shut down for three and a half months earlier this year during the first wave of the pandemic.

The limits on operations have shown up in the Joliet city budget, where casino tax revenues are 36% of what was budgeted for the entire year. Joliet has collected $6.2 million in casino taxes through October. The 2020 budget anticipated $17.2 million in casino taxes for the entire year.

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said the growing number of COVID-19 cases and the reduced capacities at casinos indicated a complete shut-down could be coming.

"We've been watching the numbers because they weren't looking good," Swoik said.

Steve Brandy, a spokesman for the Will County Health Department, said Pritzker is putting his faith in Illinoisans to do what is needed to slow the spread of the virus.

"Think before you go out," Brandy said. "Do you really have to do it? Is it necessary?"

Brandy said with news of at least two vaccines for COVID-19 showing promising results in potentially ending the pandemic, he hopes residents will be willing to hunker down and stay safe until the danger recedes.

"You can see the finish line," he said. "We have to get to the vaccine era. We have to be all together as one."