Spring break seems to be in full swing this week. Hopefully, all of you that have the chance to take some time off and relax can do so. With that said, today’s update has no shortage of announcements and updates.
Today we focus on a major announcement of an additional local vaccination site, the increase in the amount of EIDL loans, talk of passports, and updates on both Illinois Department of Employment Security and Transportation.
*Daily Coronavirus update brought to you by Silver Cross Hospital
Vaccination Site to Open at Former Toys R Us Location Near Louis Joliet Mall
The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is coming to Joliet as they will get a new mass vaccination site opened here at the beginning of April. The new site will be at the old Toys R Us location, 3128 Voyager Lane, near Louis Joliet Mall, according to a Will County Health Department Facebook post.
Residents can make an appointment through an online scheduling system. A link to make an appointment for a vaccination is on the Will County Health Department Facebook page. According to the post, the vaccination site will operate April 1 through May 30.
Also, the department said they will begin vaccinating those eligible under Phase 1b+ of the state’s vaccination plan, which includes people ages 16 through 64 with certain medical conditions. Governor Pritzker already has announced that anyone older than 16 will be eligible for a vaccine starting April 12.
County officials said this site will be run by the Will County Health Department, but its efforts will be supplemented by the Illinois National Guard. Sue Olenek, executive director of the Will County Health Department, has said in recent weeks that her team has been in talks with the IDPH about setting up such a site.
One especially attractive aspect of having a vaccination site with the help of the IDPH and National Guard was that the state would bring its own vaccine supply to supplement the county health department’s doses.
Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, said county officials spoke Friday with the IDPH about operating a new mass vaccination site. She added that once there was an agreement on a location, plans moved quickly. “Once they got the ball rolling, it went boom, boom, boom,” Bertino-Tarrant said. “[The IDPH was] pushing for it to be open as quick as possible.”
Mitch Schaben, Bertino-Tarrant’s chief of staff, also said the former Toys “R” Us location was an ideal spot to state officials because of the public transportation options for residents to get there. He added that the county also hopes to utilize volunteers from the Joliet Fire Department, which has helped operate another clinic at Joliet West High School, to further make vaccinations at the Toys “R” Us site run efficiently.
County officials also said in recent weeks that they’ve spoken with the IDPH about opening a mass vaccination site with state help in the northern part of the county. Multiple officials had mentioned Joliet Junior College’s north campus in Romeoville as a potential clinic location. Schaben said the county still hopes to open such a site to be more accessible for northern Will County residents. The county health department opened a clinic in Wilmington this past week and plans on opening another in Monee in the coming days to spread out its efforts better geographically.
For information, visit www.willcountyhealth.org
SBA to Increase Lending Limit for COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans
The U.S. Small Business Administration is increasing the maximum amount small businesses and non-profit organizations can borrow through its COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. Starting the week of April 6, 2021, the SBA is raising the loan limit for the COVID-19 EIDL program from 6-months of economic injury with a maximum loan amount of $150,000 to up to 24-months of economic injury with a maximum loan amount of $500,000.
“More than 3.7 million businesses employing more than 20 million people have found financial relief through SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which provide low-interest emergency working capital to help save their businesses. However, the pandemic has lasted longer than expected, and they need larger loans. Many have called on SBA to remove the $150,000 cap. We are here to help our small businesses and that is why I’m proud to more than triple the amount of funding they can access,” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman.
Businesses that receive a loan subject to the current limits do not need to submit a request for an increase at this time. SBA will reach out directly via email and provide more details about how businesses can request an increase closer to the April 6 implementation date. Any new loan applications and any loans in process when the new loan limits are implemented will automatically be considered for loans covering 24 months of economic injury up to a maximum of $500,000.
This new relief builds on SBA’s previous March 12, 2021 announcement that the agency would extend deferment periods for all disaster loans, including COVID-19 EIDLs, until 2022 to offer more time for businesses to build back. In order to shift all EIDL payments to 2022, SBA will extend the first payment due date for disaster loans made in 2020 to 24-months from the date of the note and to 18-months from the date of the note for all loans made in the calendar year 2021.
Questions about SBA COVID-19 EIDL and disaster loan payments can be emailed to DisasterCustomerService@sba.gov or directed to SBA’s Customer Service Center at
1-800-659-2955 (1-800-877-8339 for the deaf and hard of hearing).
The Biden administration and private companies are working to develop a standard way of handling credentials — often referred to as “vaccine passports” — that would allow Americans to prove they have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as businesses try to reopen.
The effort has gained momentum amid President Biden’s pledge that the nation will start to regain normalcy this summer and with a growing number of companies — from cruise lines to sports teams — saying they will require proof of vaccination before opening their doors again.
The administration’s initiative has been driven largely by arms of the Department of Health and Human Services, including an office devoted to health information technology, said five officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the effort. The White House this month took on a bigger role coordinating government agencies involved in the work, led by coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients, with a goal of announcing updates in coming days, said one official.
The White House declined to answer questions about the passport initiative, instead pointing to public statements that Zients and other officials made this month. “Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” Zients said.
The initiative has emerged as an early test of the Biden administration, with officials working to coordinate across dozens of agencies and a variety of experts, including military officials helping administer vaccines and health officials engaging in international vaccine efforts.
The passports are expected to be free and available through applications for smartphones, which could display a scannable code similar to an airline boarding pass. Americans without smartphone access should be able to print out the passports, developers have said.
U.S. officials say they are grappling with an array of challenges, including data privacy and health-care equity. They want to make sure all Americans will be able to get credentials that prove they have been vaccinated, but also want to set up systems that are not easily hacked or passports that cannot be counterfeited, given that forgeries are already starting to appear. One of the most significant hurdles facing federal officials: the sheer number of passport initiatives underway, with the Biden administration this month identifying at least 17.
Those initiatives — such as a World Health Organization-led global effort and a digital pass devised by IBM that is being tested in New York state — are rapidly moving forward, even as the White House deliberates about how best to track the shots and avoid the perception of a government mandate to be vaccinated.
Biden administration officials privately acknowledge the high stakes of the effort. Proof of vaccination “may be a critical driver for restoring baseline population health and promoting safe return to social, commercial, and leisure activities,” according to the March 2 slides prepared by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and obtained by The Post. But officials at the session — attended by more than 150 staff from the health, defense, homeland security and other departments, and even far-flung agencies such as NASA — warned of the “confusing array” of efforts underway to create credentials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is participating in the WHO’s effort to create “digital vaccination certificates,” also is preparing to help advise on the passport rollout. The health agency says it is expecting to play a role in determining which organizations will credential and issue the certificates, in addition to informing the public, according to CDC documents reviewed by The Post.
The Biden administration has promised to release more information about its efforts. Asked by Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) on Tuesday about the state of the passport initiative, Zients told governors he would provide a more detailed briefing this week, according to two people on the call, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
COVID-19 & Transportation Funding in Illinois One Year Later
The following information is from an Illinois Economic Policy Institute report. Despite the launch of its historic capital infrastructure program, Illinois’ transportation systems have faced
unique challenges during the COVID Pandemic. Decreased travel has reduced transportation revenues on which the program relies. And while travel trends have begun to rebound, they have not yet returned to prepandemic levels.
Both vehicular and transit systems experienced significant reductions in travel through 2020 and early 2021.
- Following Illinois’ stay-at-home order, traffic volumes were most impacted in March and April of 2020, with April experiencing a 40% drop in total vehicle travel compared to the same month in 2019.
- Vehicular traffic has recovered since April but still averaged a 15% year-over-year reduction in travel.
- Transit similarly experienced massive ridership drops in April and May 2020, with reductions between 68% for Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and 100% for Metra rail.
- For June through December 2020, year-over-year ridership declines remained 50%-60% for bus services, 77% for CTA Rail, and 89% for Metra.
The motor fuel tax (MFT), the most significant source of transportation funding in Illinois, lost $308 million over the 11-month period between April 2020 and February 2021 due to COVID-19.
- Rebuild Illinois doubled the MFT rate for gasoline and special fuels to generate an additional $1.3 billion in annual revenue annually, accounting for more than 66% of new transportation revenues.
- In normal travel conditions, the MFT generates $2.5 billion per year for Illinois and is divided between the state, local governments, and transit agencies.
- Of the $308 million in lost MFT revenue, $151 million would have been distributed to the state, $30 million would have funded transit agencies, and $126 million would have gone to local governments.
- The $308 million loss is consistent with Spring 2020 predictions in two separate studies by researchers at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).
- Due to the Rebuild Illinois capital plan, Illinois is still collecting over $800 million (64%) more in MFT revenue than two years ago despite COVID-19.
Public transit in the Chicago region was hurt even more by COVID-19 – but help is on the way.
- Local sales taxes generated $96 million less for the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) between March and November 2020 compared with the year prior.
- Collective farebox revenue from the CTA, Pace, and Metra generated $645 million less in 2020 compared to 2019; 69% less for Metra, 62% less for CTA, and 50% less for Pace.
- The American Rescue Plan provides an estimated $1.5 billion in federal funding for transit in the Chicago region to help fund operating expenses and payroll for RTA workers through 2023.
While traffic volumes showed signs of rebound in 2020, certain trends that became commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic may ultimately persist for years to come.
- A U.S. Census Bureau survey indicates that 35% of Illinois workers who were working at an employment site prior to COVID-19 are now working from home as of February 2021.
- Changing travel patterns have impacted traditional commute times, with data showing Chicago’s morning commute has declined, while midday hours experienced increased traffic.
- Rebuild Illinois was a historic plan to address long-term transportation funding shortages, but it is now important to continue tracking travel trends and emerging infrastructure needs as telework becomes more common post-pandemic.
With Illinois set to receive more than $13 billion in state and local government aid in the American Rescue Plan and vaccinations offering the potential for a return to a pre-pandemic normal in 2021, transportation infrastructure investment in Illinois may soon get back on track. To minimize COVID 19’s longer-term impacts on state infrastructure, elected officials could consider devoting portions of the American Rescue Plan funding to replace MFT revenue lost during the pandemic.
Illinois Department of Employment Security Acting Director Kristin Richards Talks About What’s Broken and How to Fix It – An Interview with CBS
Finally on Thursday, we got some answers straight from the top, as IDES Acting Director Kristin Richards sat for an exclusive interview with CBS 2’s Tara Molina. Molina got 30 virtual minutes with Richards – not enough time to address the hundreds of issues we have investigated since the bottom fell out of the job market one year ago. But it was enough time to ask some of the questions IDES still had left unanswered about the issues still affecting so many.
Molina: “Why is this the first time we’re hearing from you? Why just written statements every week? Why?”
Richards: “Honestly, I think we’ve been very, very busy here. We have worked hard to respond to the questions that you do ask of us, but we’re happy to sit down today.”
Molina: “People still call this a broken system.”
Richards: “For me, Tara, just personally, when I hear that individuals are having a difficult time resolving their issues with the agency, it’s heartbreaking.”
But a year into a pandemic that caused millions in Illinois to lose their jobs, with many then forced to wait weeks and weeks on help just to try to secure benefits to which they’re entitled, what’s being done to fix the problems? Richards said the call center is the major priority for IDES right now. “We’re doing everything now through the lens of, how do we increase that productivity?” she said.
The latest public records request shows there were 100,920 phone numbers sitting in IDES’ queues – people waiting for a returned call; a lifeline to their benefits. Richards said that number is down to just over 100,000 now. “That is not where we want to be,” Richards said. “We just need to continue working to drive those numbers down.”
The plan is to do so by increasing call center hours and working through weekends and holidays. We know people are still waiting weeks on a call for help, but the number of people waiting is only part of the problem. We continue to investigate issues on the other end of the line – contracted call-takers who can’t answer questions or give out bad information. Richards acknowledges it’s an issue. “Quite frankly, it’s unacceptable,” she said.
Richards said the IDES is working on monitoring calls and continuing training for those workers. As for calls that come after weeks-long waits, only to drop or disconnect, she said IDES is also digging into that – and claims it’s not a technology problem. “What we have also started to do is pull a report at the end of the day in our call center that gives us an indication of what calls have been dropped, and we have asked our call center agents to reach out to those people within one to two business days in order to complete the call,” Richards said.
And we learned through public records requests that IDES is keeping track of how many of those dropped calls are actually returned by a human. Another major issue hammering the agency, of course, is fraud. According to IDES, they have stopped about 1.5 million fraudulent unemployment claims. But how much have taxpayers in Illinois paid out, lost, to fraudsters? We’ve asked more than once.
Molina: “Why is it that to this day, we haven’t heard a total cost – a number – on the fraud issue in Illinois? Is there a number?”
Richards: “We are working hard to quantify that number.”
There is still no answer there. But for the first time, we did get an answer to another question.
Molina: “Why can’t IDES open its offices?”
Richards: “We are going to open our office as soon as it’s feasible for us to do so.”
The timeline right now? Richards said later this summer.
There are plans to test out in-person service at one, possibly two locations, before fully opening their doors. “We want to ensure we are not creating a chaotic, unsafe environment for claimants that are visiting our office,” Richards said. “So we are going to do it gradually.”
A gradual plan to reopen and a continued plan to improve – we’re hoping transparently. “I think today, just having this conversation with you about our call center numbers, how our callback system is working, and how there is really need for room for improvement, is important,” Richards said. Right now, IDES is trying to get approval for a $60 million increase to next year’s budget to tackle some of these issues, with half marked for the call center and another big chunk going to fraud.
Program Notices & Reminders
Hollywood Casino Joliet Partnering with Illinois Dept. of Public Health to Host Covid Mobile Testing Program
Hollywood Casino Joliet announced that it is partnering with the Illinois Department of Public Health (“IDPH”) to host a COVID-19 mobile testing program in the casino’s parking lot.
“We are incredibly proud to be partnering with the Illinois Department of Public Health to provide our parking lot as a COVID-19 testing site to help fight the spread of COVID-19,” said Lydia Garvey, Vice President and General Manager at Hollywood Casino Joliet. “Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our community as we all work together towards ending the pandemic.”
The IDPH’s mobile testing program in Hollywood Casino’s parking lot will take place from 8:00am to 4:00pm on April 3. Individuals seeking COVID-19 tests will not need a photo ID nor need to be showing signs of symptoms to receive a test. The mobile testing program accepts insurance, however an insurance card is not necessary to be tested. For the uninsured or if insurance does not cover the cost of the test, the state of Illinois will cover the cost.
The COVID-19 mobile testing program will use anterior nares swabs to test patients, with specimens being shipped to a lab to run on a polymerase chain reaction (“PCR”) testing machine which makes it possible to detect COVID-19 with a very high degree of accuracy. Individuals tested will receive a phone call between 4-7 days from the date of their test from the number 888-297-7208. Patients who miss the call will be requested to call back in order to receive results as they cannot be left via voicemail.
Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Joliet Junior College
Here are our upcoming no-cost webinars:
Social Media – Stop Posting! Start Marketing (with Joe Sanders) on April 1 at 11am
Are you taking advantage of the opportunities and changes in Social Media? Learn the five-step process: Find the Right Audience; Create the Right Content; Promote Your Business as a Brand; Use Ample Resources; and Analyze the Results. Digital Marketing expert, podcast host and author Joe Sanders, from Relevant Elephant, will share a powerful overview of how to improve your social media strategy and WHY you need to take action.
Social Media – Stop Posting! Start Marketing! (with Joe Sanders) (ecenterdirect.com)
Video Marketing for Small Business (with Mike at Acclaim Media) on April 8 at 11am
Video production once meant bringing in a full production crew to produce a television commercial. Now, a child can produce a quality video on their phone. And that video is a very important component to your website, social media pages, product information, as well as your local advertising. Learn the benefits of video marketing and hear from Mike Poglitsch at Acclaim Media about how easy the process can be.
Video Marketing for Small Business (ecenterdirect.com)
Funding Your Business (with Nancy Kuzma) on April 14th at 2pm
Funding your business is critical for start-ups as well as companies who are looking to expand. Establishing business credit is the first step. Get a basic understanding of what banks look for to qualify for a loan from Nancy Kuzma of Old Plank Trail Community Bank/Wintrust Community Bank.
Funding Your Business Webinar (ecenterdirect.com)
Government Certification Process (with Rita Haake at COD) on April 27th at 1pm
Certifications: Interpreting the alphabet to pursue profits! Which small business certification is the best one for you?
• Federal: 8(a), EDWOSB, HUBZone, SDB, SDVOSB, WOSB, VOSB
• State: DBE, FBE, FMBE, MBE, PBE, VBE
• Local: DBE, MBE, WBE, VBE
You will learn the details of the application process, documentation requirements, certification options, and how to market and leverage certifications for the growth of your business.
Webinar: The Certification Process (ecenterdirect.com)
Illinois Department of Transportation
The Illinois Department of Transportation is hosting free virtual workshops in February as part of its Building Blocks of Success series for firms interested in participating in the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program strengthening their skills and bidding on state projects. The workshops are open to all, but some are tailored to specific districts/regions of the state.
The workshop dates and topics are:
• March 30: Quick Books Part 2, 10 a.m. to noon
• March 31: Quick Books Part 3, 10 a.m. to noon
Building Blocks of Success will be conducted through April. Workshop information, including dates and times, will be made available through Eventbrite at bit.ly/DBEworkshops. Advance registration is required. Questions can be directed to the DBE resource center at (312) 939-1100.
Finally, for those residing in the City of Joliet, here is the link to view the answers to our city council candidate questionnaire and here is the link to view our recent in person candidate forum. Remember that in person voting takes place on Tuesday, April 6 and view www.thewillcountyclerk.com for information pertaining to deadlines for vote by mail ballots and early voting locations.
Also, here is the link to the recording of our State of the City address with Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk. https://youtu.be/XTVw2e-DJKk
Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry Staff and Board of Directors
Vice President – Government Affairs
Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry