PEORIA — Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis defended his decision not to sign a letter from area leaders sent to Gov. JB Pritzker Wednesday urging him to re-open the state.


"I have had conversations with the group, I think they know that that’s something that’s important to us in the Peoria region. I think the governor is fully aware of the intentions of almost all of downstate to get this started. I had a couple concerns with some of the terminologies in the letter, and I chose not to sign it at this time," Ardis said Wednesday during the daily COVID-19 press conference at the Peoria City/County Health Department.


Ardis’ biggest concern with the letter was that it lacked medical metrics.


"The smart way to do it, and the safe way to do it, there has to be a lot more medical metrics to it. And the proposal had zero," said Ardis. "We just want to get that part of it right, so it makes sense, so the governor is comfortable with it, and so we can get this area opened back up."


Medical professionals would be in charge of using metrics, including the number of positive COVID-19 cases and how many beds are available at area hospitals, to make key decisions, said Ardis.


"We’re gonna depend on Monica (Hendrickson) and Health Department officials, the folks from the hospitals and other medical people to guide us to offer that part of the equation to the governor," said Ardis.


The proposal, signed locally by mayors including John Kahl of East Peoria, Mark Luft of Pekin, Jeff Kaufman of Morton, Leon Ricca of Bartonville and Don White of Chillicothe, and the chairmen of the Tazewell, Fulton and Woodford county boards, envisions a wider and more rapid reopening that a plan proposed in Adams County that Ardis said earlier this week is worth looking at.


The East Peoria proposal was first reported locally by WMBD-31 News.


It would permit more non-essential businesses, including salons, barbershops and gyms to reopen May 1, albeit with social distancing precautions in place.


By May 15 it calls for the resumption of non-essential travel and the reopening of restaurants for dine-in service at 50% capacity. It would also reopen churches, playgrounds, theaters, casinos, and other activities with social-distancing precautions.


Those restaurant and casino limits would rise by 25% every 15 days for the next month. By June 1, athletic tournaments could resume and public pools could open, the report stated. Large gatherings would resume by July 1 with limited social-distance guidelines, according to the proposal.


Though Pritzker didn’t opine on the proposal itself during his afternoon news conference, he did say that he’d spoken with Kahl, and that he found the many proposals he’d received from local leaders across the state to be "extremely instructive."


Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman said there's no reason why the Central Illinois economy can't be opened slowly using a phased-in, carefully planned and dignified approach that emphasizes safety.


"We're not Chicago," he said. "We don't have the population density that Chicago does. And I know residents here will self-govern themselves when it comes to whatever social-distancing measures are put into place when businesses re-open. I've seen them do it."


Kaufman said he's spoken to several owners of closed Morton businesses who have a plan to keep their customers and employees safe when their business reopens.


"These are dangerous times. So many small businesses in our area are suffering," Kaufman said. "A lot of people here are worried about their livelihood, and I'm worried about these people's mental state. I've talked to many Morton residents and I can tell you they're done with the area being closed down."


With 140 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Tri-County region, an increase of 11 since Tuesday, the area is now averaging eight new cases a day over the past week, said Hendrickson, the head of the Peoria City/County Health Department.


That’s more than the two-week average of five new cases a day, showing more cases are being discovered in the area. Additionally, while overall hospital usage is roughly the same as it has been, the use of intensive care unit beds by those who are COVID-19 positive or those who are suspected has increased slightly, she said.


Those kinds of metrics will help area health officials monitor what the virus is doing in the community, and determine when it is safe to re-open the community.


"I think it’s important to realize that the thing that’s going to dictate how we re-open is not myself, not the mayor, or the healthcare professionals — it’s the virus itself," said Hendrickson. "The virus has an incubation period of 14 days, so that means if I was exposed, within the next 14 days I have the potential of becoming another case. So we really have to make sure our timeline is aligned to how the virus operates."


For people in the community frustrated with the shutdown, Ardis urged patience. Leaders are crafting a proposal to re-open the community with the important goal of protecting public health.


"The most important thing is to be safe...and I think calm is an important equation here," he said. "I really think that the governor is still listening to us, and if he reaches a comfort level that this area of the state can potentially do something, I think he’s listening. ... My feeling is the way to do that is not to just run out in front of him and say ’We’re doing it, regardless.’ I think it has to be very measured, and I think there has to be great input from the medical side."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.