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This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
Fighting — and adapting to — the coronavirus pandemic in Illinois has been costly.
As of Oct. 1, state agencies reported spending more than $1.6 billion in federal and state funds on COVID-19, with purchases that range from predictable items like face masks to more unexpected expenditures, such as sliced bread and sporks.
In the first comprehensive analysis of the state’s COVID-19 spending, ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune found that the vast majority of purchases were linked to the pandemic, but that some spending has been questionable. The Illinois State Police, for example, submitted tear gas grenades and other crowd-control equipment as COVID-19 expenses.
Many of the purchases show how costly it has been for state agencies to execute their “pandemic pivot.” Employees needed computers and security software to work remotely and protective equipment to work in person. Temporary meal sites had to be set up throughout Illinois to provide food for children who weren’t getting fed at school. Agencies spent at least $287 million on cleaning supplies and protective gear.
Some significant purchases went largely unused: The state leased out entire hotels that sat empty and erected a field hospital that treated only a few dozen patients.
The ProPublica/Tribune analysis covers every state agency expenditure that was submitted to the comptroller’s office as a pandemic-related expense from March through the end of September. Millions of dollars continue to be spent every day.
The expenditures are self-reported and, for the most part, aren’t scrutinized by state government officials in real time; the spending won’t be audited until at least next year.
“We might send it back or question it and ask for some backup. But most likely, where you’ll catch that kind of spending is when the auditors go in and say that it is 100% not COVID spending; then depending on what fund it’s out of, the agency/state of Illinois may have to pay it back,” Illinois Assistant Comptroller Ellen Andres said.
Much of the spending will be covered by federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES. Illinois expects to receive up to $5.5 billion in CARES funding this year.
States have wide latitude in how to spend that money, but purchases must be directly related to the pandemic. Federal relief money also can’t go toward purchases already planned and approved before late March — prior to the virus’s spread. And funds must be spent on costs incurred this year.
State agencies seek approval from the governor’s Office of Management and Budget to use CARES funding. Spokeswoman Carol Knowles declined to detail purchases that had been rejected but did confirm, after questions from the Tribune and ProPublica, that federal coronavirus relief money would not be used to reimburse several purchases by the state police, including crowd-control weapons.
Knowles said agencies were told to think broadly about what would qualify as a COVID-19-related expense but said budget officials are being “conservative” in deciding what can be funded with CARES money.
Ralph Martire, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Illinois, said that with little guidance from the federal government and few reporting requirements, some misspending is likely.
“Some agencies and individuals are going to try to game the system to cover purchases they want to make but can’t afford,” he said. While Martire expects the “vast majority” of funds to be spent appropriately, he said: “Will some things slip through the cracks? I imagine they will.”
To date, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency has spent the most of any agency on the pandemic, accounting for a third of the state’s COVID-19-related spending. That includes millions of pieces of personal protective equipment and hundreds of ventilators it acquired after the governor issued a disaster declaration in March.
Big-ticket PPE purchases have waned since spring. By August and September, the majority of the state’s spending went to grant programs that supported businesses, schools, and child care and health care providers, as well as continued COVID-19 testing and local contact tracing programs.
Here are some of the other expenditures found in the state’s records:
Grenades and Gun Simulators
The Illinois State Police asked for COVID-19 funds to cover $75,000 it had spent on 2,240 tear gas or other “nonlethal” grenades, 100 flash-bang grenades and 1,400 projectiles used for crowd control, plus $30,000 in hotel rooms and dinners for troopers deployed to Chicago in late May and again in August amid civil unrest related to police violence.
The police also tried to submit as a COVID-19 expense $572,000 worth of firearms simulators that the agency said were intended to help train troopers and new cadets on the use of force.
State police officials told reporters that they looked for a “nexus” between their purchases and the pandemic in case agency spending could be reimbursed with federal money.
For example, the police were stockpiling “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas grenades in case hospitals were overrun by people seeking COVID-19 treatment, according to First Deputy Matthew Davis. He also said the state police wanted to replenish supplies that had expired or were used during the wave of protests that followed the May killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
And when troopers were deployed to Chicago amid widespread unrest in late May and again in August, the department booked 102 rooms at a Chicago Hyatt — twice as many as would be typical — to give each trooper his or her own room and avoid spreading the virus.
Agency officials also argued to state budget officials that the firearms simulators they were already planning to buy had a COVID-19 purpose because they allowed for social distancing among cadets and eliminated the need for additional people to role-play, Davis said.
But the governor’s Office of Management and Budget recently rejected all of those purchases, concluding that the spending might not be directly related to COVID-19. Knowles did not say when officials made their decision, but reporters had sought information about the police purchases for several weeks.
Empty Hotel Rooms
For two months beginning in early April, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency spent about $7.5 million to lease five hotels across the state to provide temporary housing for people who needed to be quarantined. In all, about 250 people stayed at the hotels, and almost all of them were housed in Schaumburg. The average length of stay was 24 days.
The vast majority — 210 people — were housed at the Embassy Suites in Schaumburg between April 3 and June 4. The state paid $2.1 million to lease the hotel. Most of the people who stayed there were transferred from Hesed House in Aurora, the state’s second-largest homeless shelter, after an outbreak there in April.
An additional 31 people stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Schaumburg, rented at a cost of $2.93 million.
The state rented the entire 180-room Drury Inn in Mount Vernon for 62 days for $727,175 but housed only six people there during that time. In Springfield, the state paid nearly $660,000 to reserve the Holiday Inn Express and nearly $1.1 million for the Crowne Plaza, but neither hotel was used.
State health officials said the idea was to give people a place near their homes where they could “safely isolate or quarantine in order to not expose others in their home.” People referred by local health departments included those who tested positive or who had been exposed to the virus but did not require hospitalization, or those who needed to isolate themselves as a precautionary measure, including health care workers.
The state hired a hotel broker, at a cost of $200,000, to identify available hotels throughout Illinois. Other expenses included more than $100,000 in mattress covers and at least $130,000 paid to a company to decontaminate the rooms.
An Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman said the hotel rooms were intended to supplement local alternative housing efforts if needed. “The fact that these rooms were largely unused is a testament to the planning and resiliency of our local jurisdictions and the success of the administration’s mitigation measures,” spokeswoman Rebecca Clark said.
Millions of Masks
Before the pandemic, N95 masks cost about $1 each. But prices have fluctuated over the course of the pandemic, given the short supply and high demand for personal protective equipment.
The average cost for the millions of N95 masks bought by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency was $3.11 per mask.
But in one of its first purchases, on March 24, the agency paid nearly $10 each for 325,000 masks from a Dallas-based business called Sada MXC.
An agency spokesperson said the purchase was made at a time of great need, when Illinois was forced to compete against other states and countries because of a “broken supply chain and lack of supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile,” a federal source of supplies and equipment for state and local governments during emergencies.
Bread, Snacks and Sporks
The Illinois Department of Corrections, unable to operate its inmate-staffed central bakery at a men’s prison near Peoria for safety reasons, spent more than $956,000 on bread, more than $152,000 on cookies and at least $66,000 on commissary snacks from outside vendors.
A spokeswoman for the department said it paid for extra snacks to “help alleviate the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
To reduce the risk of infection, many prisons have been serving meals in smaller living units instead of in dining halls. That accounts for the $53,000 the department spent on disposable sporks.
Agencies feared that local coroners’ offices might be overwhelmed if deaths from COVID-19 surged. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency spent more than $44,000 on renting refrigerated trailers to store bodies and purchased $54,000 worth of body bags.
The corrections department bought 500 body bags for $23,000 with the understanding that two bags would be needed for each body. More than 2,100 people in custody have contracted the novel coronavirus in the state’s correctional facilities, state data shows, and 27 have died. There were about 32,000 incarcerated individuals in Illinois as of June.
Catered Meals, Boxed Lunches
When the state deployed 60 members of the Illinois National Guard for nine days to work at a medical supply warehouse in Springfield, $15,862.96 in COVID-19 funds was used to cater their meals. Other agencies subsidized food costs with COVID-19 money, too, including the Illinois Department of Public Health, which spent tens of thousands on boxed lunches for dozens of employees.
And during the civil unrest in Chicago in May, the Illinois State Police bought hundreds of meals — pizzas, boxed lunches, Jimmy John’s sandwiches — so troopers wouldn’t have to leave the areas of the city where they were posted.
One Illinois agency used grant money earmarked to promote the U.S. census to also fight COVID-19. The Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity reported paying $850,000 to the Chicago advertising agency O’Keefe Reinhard and Paul to design and produce face masks branded with the logo for the 2020 census. More than 474,000 masks with the words “Make it Count” and the census website were distributed, according to an agency spokeswoman.
Remote Work: The Pandemic Pivot
Agencies purchased hundreds of computers, monitors, webcams and other supplies so their employees could work from home. Buying laptops and other hardware alone had cost agencies at least $890,000 by the start of October.
The Teachers’ Retirement System, for example, spent more than $50,000 on equipment and office supplies as employees shifted to a remote work plan and then a hybrid option in which workers split time between the office and home.
The state’s Department of Innovation & Technology has spent more than $19 million on COVID-19-related purchases, including software licenses, online security monitoring, cloud data storage and wireless network equipment. The agency also spent at least $90,000 on consultants to provide technical assistance to employees working remotely, records show.
Private Flights to China
In mid-April, Illinois officials spent nearly $1.8 million to charter two FedEx flights to Shanghai to pick up supplies of personal protective equipment.
A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Jordan Abudayyeh, said at the time that the administration was working “around the clock” to purchase PPE for health care workers and first responders.
“The supply chain has been likened to the Wild West, and once you have purchased supplies, ensuring they get to the state is another herculean feat,” she said in a statement. “These flights are carrying millions of masks and gloves our workers need.”
An Empty Hospital
The state and city of Chicago together spent about $107 million to build and then operate a little-used field hospital at McCormick Place.
It closed in early May after receiving only 38 patients over four weeks. The average cost of treating a patient there was at least $2.81 million.
The field hospital cost $65.9 million to construct; most of that will be reimbursed through Federal Emergency Management Agency funds as well as CARES Act funds. But it also was expensive to operate. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency spent $15.1 million, mostly to hire temporary medical staff and IT consultants.
Favorite Healthcare Staffing received about $11 million to provide medical care at McCormick Place, records show. The Kansas-based company has been the state’s top COVID-19 vendor in 2020, accounting for nearly $50 million in spending on nurses and other health care providers at prisons and state-run developmental centers in addition to McCormick.
Tell Us What You Find
ProPublica and the Tribune want to dig deeper into Illinois’ COVID-19 spending. Use our search tool to find spending you think we should look into more, and email us at [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].