WATCH: Gov. Pritzker gives COVID-19 update on May 7
Governor JB Pritzker said more help is on the way for people who are trying to file for unemployment as public health officials announced 2,641 new cases of coronavirus in Illinois Thursday, including 138 additional deaths. That brings the state's total COVID-19 cases to 70,873, including 3,111 deaths.
Amid COVID-19's mounting economic toll, Illinois is reporting nearly 75,000 unemployment claims were processed last week.
"The pain and devastation for people who lost their jobs is heartbreaking," Pritzker said.
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Gov. Pritzker said he knows the impact of the pandemic, which has forced the closure of countless businesses under his stay-at-home order and resulted in more than a million unemployment claims in the last nine weeks, 12 times as many as a year ago.
"Now there's no way to even get a hold of anybody, like you cannot speak to anybody and everybody that I talked to, it's the same exact thing," said Carolina Davis, who lost her job.
As the frustrations continue to mount among those trying to file claims online or get questions answered on the phone, the governor said more help is on the way.
"For those reaching out over the phone, our new call center is now up and running," Pritzker said. "There will be 100 new agents by Monday."
And 100 more will be added to help an agency that is operating with 500 fewer employees than it had a decade ago.
"I know it's difficult, but you got to get yourself straight," said Noel Arce, an unemployed electrician. "You've got to get these unemployment offices open. You know, I understand people need to be safe, but you can do it safely."
Despite the skyrocketing unemployment numbers, the governor said the state has made significant payouts.
"In the first four months of 2020, Illinois has paid out over $2 billion in claims," Pritzker said. "That's $500 million more than what was paid out in all 12 months of 2019."
With many still reporting problems filing claims online and over the phone, the governor said the state's unemployment agency continues to increase staffing and update systems. Starting Monday, independent contractors and gig workers will be eligible for benefits. The state's computer system has been updated and can now process 140,000 claims an hour, Pritzker said.
"Under the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program, claimants can receive up to 39 weeks of benefits backdated to the first week of unemployment," Pritzker said.
With so many hurting, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce is demanding the state reopen faster.
"Government really needs to be able to do both things: listen to scientists plus also listen to the economy, people who provide jobs," said Todd Maisch, Illinois Chamber of Commerce.
Now, a suburban church is the latest to announce it will defy the governor's order. Starting May 17, Northwest Bible Baptist Church in Elgin will begin holding services above the 10-person limit with masks and social distancing.
"I have discouraged local law enforcement from arresting people," Pritzker said. "I have not discouraged them from reminding them what their obligations are to each other, and I would think that a house of worship and a pastor would know better."
"If it's expected that people are able to comply at work or at a business like a big box retailer with social distancing requirements, certainly churches are capable of doing that very same thing," said Jeremy Dys, special counsel at the First Liberty Institute.
Thursday marked the third consecutive day with more than 100 deaths reported from COVID-19 statewide. And with more people venturing out, there's concern about a rise in cases.
"We now need to see what will happen with the new attitudes that are prevailing and the new behaviors that are prevailing," said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Dept. of Public Health. "The more people are out, the more infections there will be."
The governor said he is concerned about the possibility of a long plateau, but he said if trends remain stable, we should be able to still move to the next phase of reopening.
Gov. Pritzker defended his "Restore Illinois" plan Wednesday to lawmakers and business groups who say it does not move quickly enough.
Republicans from across the state said the governor's approach is too broad and the regional plan lumps together communities that may be experiencing very different impacts from COVID-19.
"My view is no matter how we drew these lines, there were going to be people who might complain," Pritzker said.
"I have already heard from countless business owners in my district, that if the governor's plan continues, they won't be able to reopen whenever the time comes for the governor to allow it," said State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.
The governor said he wants to get businesses reopened as much as anyone, but only when it's safe.
"I also think that the public understands this and even if we flung the doors open on bars and restaurants today, I think many people would say, 'I don't want to be in a public location like that,'" Pritzker said.
The governor defended his phased reopening plan, which many business leaders say is too restrictive and moves too slowly.
"We give the governor credit for putting a plan out there, but we just wish it wasn't this plan," said Tom Maisch, of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.
Under the plan's benchmarks and time tables, which seek to prevent a resurgence of the virus, the earliest many businesses could fully operate is May 29. Additionally, restaurants and bars could not have even limited in-person dining until the end of June at the earliest.
"We want to hear what the doctors and scientists have to say, but we think June 26th is a long time to not be able to open," said Sam Toia, of the Illinois Restaurant Association. "Again, sales are down 80 percent here."
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"I'm a business person. At least before I became governor, I was a business person," Pritzker said. "And I'm the one who's debating these things with the scientists and epidemiologists, and they're making cogent, well-founded arguments, and I'm listening to the science."
Under Pritzker's plan, summer festivals would likely be canceled because gatherings would be limited to 50 or even less until there's widespread immunity, likely from a vaccine or treatment.
"If we had something that would decrease the rate of fatalities, if we could decrease the rate of people ending up in the hospital," said Illinois Director of Public Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike. "Anything like that would be a complete game changer."
State GOP lawmakers are now demanding that Democratic leaders convene a session of the General Assembly. They say it's well past the time the legislature took a greater role in moving the state forward. The Illinois Department of Public Health has now provided guidance for how lawmakers could safely do that.
"When we begin to talk about plans that have an impact for months or even years, that's when we must restore the functioning of our democratically elected government," said State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon.
Republicans are anxious to have more say in how the "Restore Illinois" plan is crafted or modified going forward.
"I'll work with the legislature in any way they want, but my job is to keep people healthy," Pritzker said.
"Speaker Madigan, you set the calendar," Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin said. "Mr. Speaker, and the House Democrats, get back into the game. Get your head out of the sand, and let's go back to work."
A spokesman for Speaker Madigan said Republicans can continue to meet with the bipartisan working groups that are currently meeting every day. The governor said he has taken into consideration a number of Republican recommendations.
Also, with many people looking ahead towards Mother's Day, Dr. Ezike said it is still not safe for families to go and gather together. Virtual hugs would still be best, she said, so that the virus does not possibly spread.
Illinois health officials also revealed Wednesday there are nearly 5,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19, with more than 1,200 in the ICU. There are 780 patients on ventilators.