Jasper County Board members on May 14 received an update on coronavirus in the county and learned the legal complexities of trying to reopen area businesses shut down for weeks to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
County Health Department Administrator Deb Riddle said Jasper County has shown it can contain the virus. She recalled how Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently claimed that Jasper County had a high number of positive COVID-19 positive tests for such a small county when responding in a press conference to State Rep. Darren Bailey’s lawsuit filed in Clay County – Jasper County is one of several counties in Bailey’s 109th legislative district.
The county has recorded seven COVID-19 deaths among the Newton Care Center residents, but more than 300 tests have been conducted for Jasper County residents in recent weeks and most have turned out negative for the virus. In addition, there are many people recovering from the virus.
Riddle said COVID-19 has been contained in the county thanks to nursing home staff, medical personnel and the Health Department’s efforts over the past several weeks. She also thanked the community for its support during these tragic times.
Riddle said Jasper County Health Department has been working with other health departments in this part of the state to develop a safe plan for reopening. The proposal, which sought public input, calls for fewer phases than the Governor’s plan for resuming some businesses and activities with a 14-day wait before moving to the next phase. However, there are legal and insurance liability hurdles.
Jasper County State’s Attorney Chad Miller reviewed the legal and jurisdictional issues for Jasper County government on reopening the county. For example, the county board has jurisdiction only on non-incorporated areas of the county. Most businesses affected by the statewide stay-at-home order for COVID-19 are mostly located in towns or villages.
In addition, the county board cannot rescind a state order outright. “You can’t give back something you did not take away in the first place,” Miller explained.
Regarding business-related licenses, the state, not the county, has control over licensing, Miller said. Many business owners in Illinois have criticized Pritzker’s announcement last week that businesses disobeying his COVID-19 orders could risk fines or loss of licensing. The Governor and some state medical experts state it could be tragic to reopen the state too quickly with the virus spreading again and costing more lives in Illinois.
Miller said the county board could only offer support to the alternative reopening plan proposal, which means that action would only be symbolic in nature. That is why he did not offer a resolution on a reopening plan during that night’s board meeting.
The State’s Attorney recommended that any businesses wanting to test the waters on reopening should first speak with their insurer and their attorney before taking that step. Ray Diel speaking on the liability issue made the same recommendation to the board.
After Miller spoke, Hickox thanked the State’s Attorney for his response on the reopening question. He said that information would better help him answer questions from the public.
Board members offered comments on the need for reopening the local economy soon. A.C. Pickens read a letter from county residents Randy and Julie Chapman about the dire circumstances that business owners and laid-off workers are facing in the county. They said Illinois needs to end the lockdown now.
Earlier in the meeting, Ben Bollman stated during the public comment session that the Governor’s reopening plan is not realistic by requiring a vaccine against COVID-19 or no new cases recorded. Bollman, who was speaking as an individual not a board member, was also supported by board member Brian Leffler, Gary Michl and Hickox.