virus Champaign CC01

A sign projected behind City Attorney Fred Stavins, right, cautions those attending an emergency meeting of the Champaign City Council to be mindful in choosing their seats Friday, March 13, 2020, at the council chambers in the City Building.

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CHAMPAIGN — Champaign officials want to assure citizens that an emergency declaration concerning the coronavirus pandemic is not an attempt to violate civil rights.

Following a raft of criticism apparently generated by a response from the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association to Friday’s approval of the emergency ordinance, the city put out a statement Saturday clarifying the intent.

“Understandably, this order has caused many to ask questions regarding its intent,” it read. “The exercise of any emergency provision is dependent on the nature of the particular crisis. In the best-case scenario, an outbreak in our community would require the activation of none of the emergency provisions identified.”

City Attorney Fred Stavins said this is the first time in his 39 years in that post that such emergency action has been needed.

“This is a challenging, unprecedented time for our community. ... It required prompt and immediate steps in order to maintain essential services required by our community,” Stavins said. “To be extremely clear, only provisions that are necessary to protect the public health in this situation will be enacted. The city council would never take an action to violate anyone’s civil liberties.”

The statement said the municipal code has been in place for more than 50 years and was last updated in 2006 to mirror a state statute that gives similar powers to the governor when he or she issues a disaster declaration, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker did on Monday.

Several communities in Illinois and other states have similar language about emergency powers.

“There’s a long list of powers that had their origins in state statute, and we adopted them in 2006 in our city code,” council member Tom Bruno said. “They include things like seizing property. That might be because of the path of a tornado. It’s stuff that’s born out of civil unrest, riots, chemical spills.

“It’s a broad list of powers, and buried in there is (restricting) the temporary sale of firearms,” he said. “People in the NRA seize stuff like that to stir up their base. What we were trying to do is get out ahead of the curve to protect the citizens from an infectious virus.

“There were irresponsible people who used that to try to stir their own agendas,” he said, adding that some council members received threats from around the country that have been reported to law enforcement.

The statement said it was “unfortunate that the action taken by City Council to protect the community has been misconstrued in a time when we need clear, accurate information to protect public health.”

Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said the city did the “exact right thing” with its emergency-powers ordinance, and people “need to listen and learn and not make things political or us against them.”

“We are in this together as a county. We all have to grow up and get along,” she said, adding “we are going to get cases.”

“The whole goal is to keep the cases low enough and slow enough to prevent hospital systems from being overloaded,” she said. “People have to understand they have to be ready for the long haul. They are going to have to pitch in and be nice to each other. Stock up. Don’t hoard.

“This is deadly serious stuff. It’s not a game. We know we are going to get cases and they are popping up all over the place,” she added. “This spreads before people have symptoms. That makes it super challenging, and that’s why you see extreme measures.

“That’s why people need to trust us. I’ve been doing this over 25 years. ... Everybody working on this is working very hard and doing their very best.”

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).