CHICAGO – A state panel Tuesday sided with Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker in his fight against COVID-19 by approving a rule that could mean fines of up to $2,500 for “rogue” businesses that don’t require patrons wear facial coverings.
The measure was opposed by the GOP and some leading business groups but favored by several influential public health organizations, including the Illinois State Medical Society and the Illinois Health and Hospital Association.
The new rule still leaves a patchwork of enforcement standards statewide, because local prosecutors will be the ones deciding whether to pursue fines. Several who opposed the governor’s pandemic response went on record last spring saying they wouldn’t pursue fines for violators.
But the action taken by the state Joint Committee on Administrative Rules still handed the governor a political victory.
“The vast majority of our communities and business owners are doing what’s right. Working alongside these partners, these rules will provide multiple opportunities for compliance before any penalty is issued and will help ensure that the minority of people who refuse to act responsibly won’t take our state backward,” the governor said in a statement issued after the panel’s vote.
“These rules will ensure that there is a commonsense way to enforce public health guidelines with an emphasis on education first so that Illinois can continue to make substantial progress in our fight against COVID-1,” Pritzker said.
During the hearing, the governor’s top attorney said the rule is essential considering that Illinois is seeing a new surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We think as we’re seeing numbers tick up now, it’s a very critical moment, and it’s important to have this in place,” said Ann Spillane, Pritzker’s general counsel.
In May, Pritzker had pushed the panel to approve the rule but relented when it appeared the Democratic-led state legislature would vote to toughen penalties for flouting his mask-wearing orders.
However, that vote in the legislature never materialized as the issue morphed into a political hot potato in an election year, leaving Pritzker to accuse lawmakers of a “complete abdication of responsibility” and putting him back to square one on the issue.
Since then, Pritzker’s administration eliminated a provision from the earlier version of the rule that would have subjected individuals who run businesses that flout state mask-wearing requirements to a Class A misdemeanor, which theoretically could carry jail time upon conviction.
Now, the only consequences would be felt by businesses and their financial bottom lines.
But that change wasn’t enough to satisfy Republicans, who failed in their effort to block the new rule from taking effect. The GOP pushback fell two votes shy of the necessary eight votes required to block the rule.
“Honestly, having talked with some of the Illinoisans who refuse to wear masks, passing this administrative rule is not going to make people more likely to wear a mask,” said state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, who voted to delay the measure.
Schimpf and other Republican colleagues believe the issue needed to go before the full state legislature rather than a rulemaking body that lacks the same force.
The main dictates of the rule apply to adults and to children.
Anyone over the age of two must wear a facial covering over their noses and mouth when in public and unable to maintain six-feet of social distance. The requirement applies to indoor spaces like stores and to outdoor areas, though patrons at restaurants can remove masks when eating or drinking.
Under the rule, stores must post signs spelling out mask-wearing requirements, offer customers face coverings and ask them to leave if they refuse to do so.
Schools, universities, day-care centers and group day care homes must adhere to the same mask-wearing edicts, though masks can be taken off while eating or drinking, outdoors when social distancing is maintained or while playing musical instruments.
A Pritzker aide said fines are not intended to apply to schools, nor is there any aim to shut down schools for noncompliance through the rule.
Local public health departments or law-enforcement agencies would first have to give rule-breaking businesses or groups written notice that they were violating the state mask-wearing order. Then, if that step didn’t produce compliance, local officials could order people in the business or facility to disperse.
Only after those moves didn’t work — and after two separate citations for non-compliance — could local officials impose fines under the new rule, ranging between $75 and $2,500.
“This rule is going to be enforced against rogue operators,” said state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, the co-chair of the 12-member panel. Cunningham voted to support the rule.
The main trade group representing retailers across the state ripped into the Pritzker administration following Tuesday’s decision.
“Instead of cooperation and collaboration, the administration chose politics and confrontation in developing this rule, abandoning the partnership with retailers that has helped guide our state through this pandemic,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
“While the administration preaches the importance of individuals wearing face coverings, they are clearly not interested in taking responsibility for their own orders. Instead, they are exporting their enforcement responsibilities to others and playing politics with the pandemic,” Karr said. “Make no mistake: Their actions have once again put retailers and their employees in harm’s way.”