Illinois Partners With Six Midwest States To Decide When To Reopen Economy As Illinois COVID-19 deaths exceed 1,000, state joins Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan in new compact.
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Illinois Partners With Six Midwest States To Decide When To Reopen Economy

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaks during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. The state joins Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan in new compact. Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press hide caption

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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

As COVID-19 deaths broke another daily record, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced Thursday that the state would partner with six other Midwestern states to restart the region's economy in a phased-in manner.

The states involved with Illinois include Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota.

"We are committing, all of us, to work in close coordination as a region to most effectively reopen our economy with a fact-based, data-driven approach," Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday.

"Each state will design its own plan but with shared priorities: the ability to test and trace on a widespread basis, holding down infection and hospitalization rates, enhancing healthcare capacity to handle a possible resurgence and a continued emphasis on social distancing in the workplace and elsewhere," he said.

Border states that didn't join Illinois and the other Midwestern states include Iowa and Missouri. Iowa still has not imposed a stay-at-home order, and Missouri only did so earlier this month. Both are led by Republican governors closely allied with President Trump.

"I would like if everybody adopted similar rules, because we're bending the curve," Pritzker said, when asked about the neighboring holdouts. "Not everywhere is bending the curve. There is nothing I can do."

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The move came as Trump's administration issued guidance Thursday putting the decision when to relaunch economies in states' hands. Illinois' move follows similar regional partnerships involving states clustered on America's east and west coastlines.

"The White House chose not to take the lead here so the states have had to make decisions on our own," Pritzker said. "And the people who are part of the collaborative of this group of Midwestern states, you've seen that many of us have operated with very, very similar principles in mind. And if you look at our stay-at-home orders, they really look very much alike."

Pritzker has not divulged whether he intends to extend the stay-at-home order he put in place for Illinois, which expires on April 30, or cancel school statewide for the duration of the spring. But in other states in the newly formed Midwestern compact, governors have begun signaling their plans for May.

On Thursday, Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers extended his state's stay-at-home order until May 26.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine Thursday announced he would ease up on business closures beginning May 1.

"To the extent that other states are looking at opening certain kinds of businesses on certain dates, obviously we have different economies across these states," Pritzker said when asked about those moves in Wisconsin and Ohio. "But we share a lot in common. A lot of the ideas we each have about our states are applicable to one another."

Today's agreement brings together Democratic and Republican governors. Besides Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Kentucky are led by Democratic chief executives. Ohio and Indiana have GOP governors. Minnesota is led by a governor who identifies as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

The multi-state announcement came as Illinois set a new daily record for COVID-19 deaths Thursday. State officials announced 125 additional fatalities from the coronavirus, increasing the state's overall death toll by 13 percent in one day. The total number dead now stands at more than 1,070 in Illinois.

All week, Pritzker's administration has been sending the message that the rate of serious hospitalizations involving COVID-19 patients and their use of ventilators is slowing its exponential growth. Thursday's bad news didn't appear to derail that overall outlook.

"You have heard me say it before: This is a marathon. We have to keep pace [and] can't get ahead of ourselves," said Ngozi Ezike, state Public Health Director. "You can see that we still have many new cases and unfortunately many lives that continue to be lost, but running together we will still beat this COVID-19. We are on the right track. We are not over this, but we will [be]."

In other developments, Pritzker sounded an optimistic tone about increasing the availability of COVID-19 tests and getting quick results, promising to ramp up the processing of "thousands more tests per day" at state laboratories during the coming week.

The state has added capacity to complete tests, in addition to adding more locations for people to get tested. The state also changed its criteria for who is eligible to get tested. Those who are showing COVID-19 symptoms are now included. Doctors notes would no longer be needed for state tests.

"This progress on testing isn't all the progress that we need to begin on our path back to normal, but this is truly an important step to help us get there," Pritzker said.

Meanwhile, in more financial fallout to the state caused by COVID-19, a leading bond-rating agency downgraded Illinois and moved the state perilously close to junk-bond status, which could drive up future state borrowing costs.

Fitch Ratings dropped Illinois' rating to BBB- and revised the state's longer-range outlook from stable to negative, noting an expected "fundamental weakening of the state's financial resilience" because of COVID-19's impact on the state's economy.

Bond ratings of BBB- and higher are considered investment-grade quality. Anything below is regarded as junk status.

"While Illinois should avoid any immediate cash flow pressures, the state's lack of meaningful reserves and the limited nature of other fiscal-management tools at its disposal mean Illinois will be challenged to maintain its investment grade [rating]," Fitch wrote.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.

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