How Soon We Recover Depends Upon Us

Great InfluenzaAs we move into Phase 3 of the “Restore Illinois” plan tomorrow, there are a few things that need to be said.

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None of us are happy about the pace at which life is returning to “normal”. We all want to enjoy the warmer weather and do the things that define summertime for us. We’ve seen surrounding states loosen their restrictions on businesses and social activities and chafe at the notion that we’re still where we are. I get that. I’ve been as adamant as anyone in calling for a loosening of restrictions on public activity and to go to a more regional approach to opening up our economy.

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But there’s something that we all need to understand. Moving to Phase 3 is not a license to let the good times roll. I’m reading “The Great Influenza”, the classic narrative of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic that swept the world toward the end of World War I, killing over 100 million people, and that narrative is chilling.

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The influenza came in three waves, the first being a mild form of flu that most people took in stride. However, in a matter of a few months, the virus mutated into such a lethal form that the second wave caused thousands to fall ill daily. The influenza virus is very adept at changing its form within a few generations, gaining lethality as it does. There’s no reason to think that this one is any different.

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I’m not saying this as a prediction that what we’re now experiencing will be followed by a much more deadly strain in the fall. What I am saying is that neither I nor anyone else knows what is coming. But if we see in the fall what the world saw in 1918, we have very little with which to fight it.

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That’s because, short of developing a vaccine in the near future, we’ve shot the only arrow we had in our quiver. By shutting down the entire economy, our schools, elective surgeries and all the rest, we’ve put ourselves into a position where, if this virus comes back with a vengeance, it’s going to be very difficult to institute a second shutdown without resorting to the kind of enforcement mechanisms that none of us want. Not only would people accuse the government of crying wolf, but an economy which would just be starting to climb back would be thrown back onto the mat.

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The people who’ve been standing on the front lines of this pandemic, our first responders, doctors and nurses and technicians in our ICU’s, grocery clerks and truck drivers all deserve our thanks. But they deserve something else, as well. They need to know that we’re going to be sensible to the continuing threat that a resurgence of this virus can bring if we aren’t careful about how we exercise the responsibility we have to our families, to them and to each other.

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That begins by taking the lessons we’ve learned about how to bend the curve of this disease downward and continuing to do so, even as we move into a more open economy. There isn’t one of us who wants to move back into shutdown and the chaos that goes along with it. Exercising sensible precautions is a tradeoff we should be willing to accept, because if we have to go backwards, it’s going to be a lot worse.

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“Mort de la Guerre”

GraveOver forty years ago while bicycling through eastern France, I took a break and walked into a small grove of trees which grew in the middle of a wheat field. There, sitting in a small clearing was a simple stone, inscribed with the phrase “mort de la guerre”.

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There was no name, no date and no means of identification, just a simple stone marking the final resting place of someone who had fallen in defense of Liberty.

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Since then, the men and women of the United States armed forces have been sent to the far corners of the world to defend the Liberty that we so often take for granted. It’s only appropriate that we dedicate at least one day a year in remembrance of those who didn’t come back.

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This weekend there will be remembrances, parades, and family gatherings. To those of you for whom that family gathering will be to honor one of their own who, in words attributed to Lincoln: “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom”, we should all offer a silent moment of thanks.

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Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2003:

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“Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.”

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Cemeteries around the world stand as testimony to the price our country has been willing to pay for our freedom. But whether it’s the beautifully manicured grounds at Arlington or Normandy or an anonymous grave in eastern France, our obligation is the same: to remember the cost of freedom and to honor all who were “mort de la guerre”.

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Illinois is Burning, Governor. Stop Fiddling Around.

What a week.

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And, as is often the case, the big news of the week came on Friday afternoon, when the Illinois Department of Public Health issued an emergency rule which, in effect, turned small business owners who are deemed “non-essential” into criminals if they opened their doors in violation of the Governor’s Executive Orders. So now we have a Governor who’s willing to let murderers and rapists out of jail to make room for people who just want to earn a living, all in the name of protecting everyone from COVID-19.

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IDPH already has authority under the Illinois Department of Public Health Act to bring charges against anyone who refuses to obey any Public Health regulation:

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20 ILCS 2305/8.1

(20 ILCS 2305/8.1) (from Ch. 111 1/2, par. 24):
Sec. 8.1. Whoever violates or refuses to obey any rule or regulation of the Department of Public Health shall be deemed guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. The Director of Public Health shall institute prosecutions and proceedings for violation of the rules and regulations adopted by the Department of Public Health…Each State’s Attorney shall prosecute all persons in his (!) county violating or refusing to obey the rules and regulations of the Department of Public Health… (Source: P.A. 87-895; 87-984.) (Emphasis mine)

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20 ILCS 2305/2(k):

(k) Any person who knowingly or maliciously disseminates any false information or report concerning the existence of any dangerously contagious or infectious disease in connection with the Department’s power of quarantine, isolation and closure or refuses to comply with a quarantine, isolation or closure order is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

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The rule was issued to bridge the gap between the authority granted in statute and those businesses deemed “non-essential”. As a member of the Joint Committee on Administrative rules (JCAR), I’ll have one of the first bites of the apple when the Committee meets this coming Wednesday in Springfield. Needless to say, I will strongly object to this rule.

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Not to be outdone, on Friday afternoon, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) sent an email to owners of barbershops, hair salons and other businesses regulated by the “Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985 (I kid you not) telling them that if they didn’t follow the dictates of Executive Order 2020-32, they were at risk of having their operating licenses revoked. I find it ironic that IDFPR’s mission statement is as follows:

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“The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation’s mission is to utilize responsive, innovative, transparent, and efficient (R.I.T.E.) governance to create an ideal regulatory environment that (1) allows economic growth to flourish, and (2) effectively optimizes consumer choice.”

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Instead of threatening these businesses with the loss of their licenses, maybe we should repeal the “Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985”. These rules often amount to nothing more than rent seeking and serve no further purpose than to provide barriers to entry to people who just want to make a living. If I want someone to braid my hair (and if this shutdown goes on much longer, my hair will be long enough to do that), I should be able to let someone do it without them having to jump through all these regulatory hoops.

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But Wait! There’s More!

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On Friday afternoon I received a phone call telling me that the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s (IDES) website set up to process unemployment claims for “gig” workers had been hacked, but that I couldn’t say anything because the site was still up and running, with private information being made publicly available. To bring attention to it may have done more harm than good.

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This is only the latest in an ongoing series of problems that IDES has had while processing new unemployment claims.

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When you add it all up, and throw in the fact that Illinois is going to see a reduction in state revenue of about $7 billion in the next fiscal year, it’s quite apparent that the state stands on the edge of a precipice. I didn’t want to get all “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” here, but I think the Governor had better start opening up the state sooner rather than later, or when we all get to go outside again without him telling us how to behave, there won’t be anything to go outside for.

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An Open Letter to the People of the 63rd District

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This week’s announcement by the Governor that McHenry County will be included in the Northeast Region as part of his “Restore Illinois” program to reopen the Illinois economy has resulted in a variety of responses from throughout the 63rd District. I’ve listened to all of you, from those who think that we need to continue with the current program until the number of new cases drops to those who want to reopen now.

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I’ve sent a letter to the Governor urging him to amend his plan and exclude McHenry County from the Northeast Region, citing the number of cases of COVID-19 in the county compared to those in Cook County and Chicago, and how those areas will have a much larger impact on the decision of when to reopen. The fact that the Mayor of Chicago has announced a reopening plan that is even more restrictive makes it even less likely that McHenry County will reopen anytime soon under his plan.

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We’ve seen entire swaths of our economy go into the tank; the restaurant industry has been especially hard hit. Of the half-million people who work in that industry in Illinois, over sixty percent are out of work. The economic toll of the social shutdown can go on for just so long before it becomes unbearable. Public health, personal freedom, and economics are not the only competing values at stake. We’re now beginning to experience the social and psychological costs of prolonged isolation, which will only get worse as we cancel summer events, from neighborhood gatherings to the annual Barn Dance and all the other wonderful events that make this county such a special place to live. Will 4th of July celebrations be next? As of now, the County Fair has not been cancelled; let’s hope that it’s not.

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At the outset of the pandemic, the measures ordered by the Governor were necessary, but they are not sustainable. His “Restore Illinois” plan will not work, at least not without the kind of enforcement that none of us will accept. We don’t like being told what to do, especially by a government that failed to plan for this in the first place. Now we have a plan, devised without consultation with the Legislature, which includes “contact tracing”. That may have worked before there were thousands of cases. But that ship has sailed, it won’t work now. For those who think that wearing a mask is a public duty, are you willing to allow the government to follow you around to see where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with? Liberties surrendered during times of crisis are rarely restored in full when the crisis ends. 9/11 taught us that.

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A vaccine, if one is ever found, is months away. We need to move forward, and how we respond will determine how quickly we can get back to normal, whatever “normal” comes to mean. It would seem that our failure to learn the lessons of the Spanish influenza a century ago means that we’ll most likely respond to COVID-19 in much in the same way the country did then: in fits and starts, a system of closings, re-openings and still more closings, where individual responsibility and self-discipline mattered more than government dictates. Something tells me that individual responsibility and self-discipline will get us there sooner.

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The Next Step to Opening Up the Economy

With the announcement of Washington’s three-phase plan to begin opening up the economy after the COVID-19 lockdown, the focus now shifts to determining the extent to which states and municipalities meet certain “gating criteria” which show how the rate of infection has flattened and has begun to trend downward.

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Part and parcel of that must be a robust system of testing, not just of those who have displayed symptoms of the disease, but also a testing system to determine those who possess antibodies to the virus, meaning that they’ve had the virus in their systems but did not display those symptoms and no longer have the virus.

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A small test has recently been conducted in Santa Clara County in California, and Los Angeles. The results of the Santa Clara test can be found here. The LA test results will be published soon. Also, Major League Baseball is participating in the test, which will give researchers information about communities around the country.

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The Santa Clara test showed an estimated infection rate by early April ranging from 48,000 and 81,000 people in a county of 1.9 million people, an exposure rate that is 50-85-fold more than the number of confirmed cases. The study concluded that: “(t)he population prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Santa Clara County implies that the infection is much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases.”

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One of the researchers on this test, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya recently recorded an interview on the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge:.

Watch this video on YouTube.

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The interview is a follow-up of one done a month ago at the outset of our reaction to the virus, and is a sober discussion of the manner by which we can begin to accumulate the data we need to determine the true extent of the spread of the virus and a means of finding a path out of our current lockdown, including compliance with the roadmap outlined by the White House.

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Dr. Bhattacharya clearly lays out the upsides and the downsides of what these studies will describe, and in no way undermines the current reaction to the virus, such as social distancing. However, he also points out that the biggest danger to public health lies in areas where the virus threatens to overwhelm the local health systems, such as Chicago, New York and other major population centers. Proper testing, including these types of antibody tests now being conducted, may provide us with a pathway to opening up our economy on a more granular and regional basis as we obtain more accurate data about the actual exposure rate and what that rate tells us about the lethality of the virus.

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We must also take into consideration the public health impact from shutting down the economy, which is measurable in terms of depression, suicide, domestic violence and other negative behavioral outcomes. These cannot be discounted as part of the impact of what we’re going through.

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Tests such as the one described above should be a top priority for our public health officials, because they would both serve to inform the public about the true extent and lethality of this invisible scourge and allow state leaders to make rational decisions on where to keep the current orders in place and where to allow some lessening of the restrictions. This won’t happen overnight, but would serve as a very good start. As Rich Lowry said in a recent post on National Review:

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“If we are going to have 60,000 deaths with people not leaving their homes for more than a month, the number of deaths obviously would have been higher — much higher — if everyone had gone about business as usual. We didn’t lock down the country to try to prevent 60,000 deaths; we locked down the country to limit deaths to 60,000 (or whatever the ultimate toll is).”

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Under our system of Federalism, the states are (properly) given the authority to make decisions regarding public safety. While none of us likes being subjected to executive orders about how we should conduct our public lives, doing so on a state-by-state basis is much better than dictates from Washington.

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It’s going to be a long time, if ever, before our lives get back to normal, however you describe “normal”. But I think that people are showing that one of the best remedies for this crisis is information, which leads to them making decisions which are in their own best interests. Those interests will differ from person to person, but if the death toll from COVID-19 is far less than the most draconian predictions we’ve heard, we can all take credit for having used our best judgment, informed by the best information available, to help bend the curve downward.

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