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Local Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: With cooperation vital for COVID response, Pritzker must lead from the top

Gov. JB Pritzker is managing the pandemic like someone who doesn’t care if he’s reelected in 2022.

Neither does he seem bothered by the suggestion his coronavirus strategy will cost him votes on the statewide income tax referendum, a vital component of his progressive campaign agenda.

As someone adhering to the “safety first” approach with most things COVID-19, I generally don’t mind the governor’s approach, especially in contrast to his counterparts in Iowa and Wisconsin. But the ends don’t always justify the means, and Pritzker undoubtedly harmed his own cause Tuesday by suddenly – and indefinitely – tabling the high school basketball season.

Winter sports practices were supposed to start Nov. 16. On Friday, the Illinois High School Association presented basketball safety modifications proposals to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The IHSA Board of Directors was to vote Wednesday on plans for the season. But about 15 minutes before his Tuesday news conference, Pritzker’s office told the IHSA basketball was reclassified into a higher risk category.

Regardless of where you stand on the safety of sports – polling indicates the majority favors waiting – it’s difficult to see how the people anxious for basketball could feel anything but blindsided.

Maybe they weren’t optimistic. Maybe they felt the hammer would drop a day later. And while there’s no way to deliver such news without angering some, there must be shreds of wisdom in at least trying to avoid feeding the perception of favoring authority over collaboration.

But perhaps the governor can’t win. At the same time he iced basketball, Pritzker ordered new restrictions on indoor dining and bar service in Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, seemingly a politician more interested in currying favor than promoting safety, pledged to negotiate some sort of exception.

Illinois established metrics July 15 and tightened certain mitigations on Aug. 24, so changing guidelines in late October just because Lightfoot tried to put her foot down would’ve been a slap in the face to businesses and governments across the state. Obviously, these changes will have significant economic repercussions, but what good are any of Prtizker’s numbers-based safety protocols if they’re subject to modification if you know the secret password?

It’s already difficult to ponder the bar and restaurant owners going to great lengths to salvage businesses while staying compliant. Then layer in how the federal government, which has but won’t use the economic power to pay people to stay home, freeze loans and deploy other relief measures. Giving Chicago a pass would’ve been a massive failure, not just in public relations but of governance.

Pritzker can’t solve all our pandemic problems. But neither should he increase them. The true way forward is cooperation, which is impossible if natural opponents feel they’re empowering a rival.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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