“How can we vote to undo something that we didn’t do?” said Montgomery County Board Chairman Evan Young.
Amid growing initiatives to open county businesses, leadership of the Montgomery County Board explains that the county board wasn’t the one to close businesses in the first place, and has no jurisdiction to reopen them.
“Honestly, we could vote until we are blue in the face, but the county board has nothing to do with businesses being closed,” said Vice Chairman Megan Beeler. “The state did that. They didn’t ask us, and they didn’t give us a vote.”
At their last regular board meeting, county board members unanimously approved an extension of the disaster declaration in the county. However, that has no bearing on whether or not businesses are allowed to open in the county. It only allows the county to apply for reimbursement for money spent on fighting the pandemic in the county.
“This open now movement is creating wedges between counties, municipalities and townships when we should be standing together,” Beeler said. “The state continues to put us in a bad position.”
She added that even if the board were to vote offering approval for businesses to reopen, the Montgomery County Health Department could go in and close it down. The health department has a separate governing board from the Montgomery County Board, and at this time, the health department recommends no changes to the governor’s orders and are bound to follow the rules of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Businesses are also at risk if they open ahead of state approval. Young said one county business owner told him that the business received a letter from the insurance company stating that if it were to open despite the shelter-in guidelines, they would not be covered for liability insurance.
The state has also threatened to pull liquor licenses from bars and restaurants in non-compliance of the governor’s orders.
“If they gave us power at the local level to work with local businesses, we would,” Beeler said. “But our hands are tied.”
The pair added that in addition to the risks for local businesses, the governor has also threatened to withhold money from local governments who defy the stay-at-home orders, which could include more than $1 million in MFT (motor fuel tax) funding and other state-held funds.
In addition, the county has received a letter from the Illinois Counties Risk Management Trust stating that government entities who promote a less-restrictive plan than the governor’s orders may jeopardize their insurance coverage.
And while Beeler and Young feel that their hands are tied in terms of state mandates, they are working on new protective measures at the county facilities in place for when the reopening does occur. Currently, the county is on track to be part of the state’s phase three to reopen some businesses at the end of May.
Throughout county buildings, they have installed plexiglass barriers in all the office windows and added a drop box at the Historic Courthouse. Office holders are also taking appointments and calls to help the public.
Local judges and the sheriff are working together on maintaining access to the new courthouse building, and Young expects that both buildings will move toward opening up more in the next few weeks.
“It’s our position that it’s not within our jurisdiction to open the county,” Beeler said. “We believe people can use common sense and good judgement, but it’s not within our jurisdiction to lift the stay-at-home order.”
Beeler and Young encourage local residents to contact their state legislators, who return to session this week, about these issues. This week, Young submitted a letter to Governor JB Pritzker asking him to let the local counties decide when their businesses are safe to open.
“I feel that we are all adults and should be treated as such in making our own decisions regarding the safety of our citizens and the well-being of our county,” Young wrote in his letter. “I believe if we all work together, we can get through this with minimal economic effects and the well-being of our citizens.”