Pritzker’s mask enforcement rule survives legislative panel

By Peter Hancock Capitol News Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker wears an Illinois-themes mask as he waits to speak at the Emergency Management Agency Operations Center in Springfield in Springfield on Monday, Aug. 3. He announced a new $5 million ad campaign to promote face coverings as cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in the state. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

SPRINGFIELD — A legislative panel that oversees the state’s administrative rulemaking process voted along partisan lines to allow Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s emergency rule to enforce mask-wearing and other public health orders to move forward.

That decision came from the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR, a 12-member, bipartisan, bicameral group that exercises oversight of the state’s regulatory process.

Pritzker announced the new enforcement measure on Friday, Aug. 7, as 13 counties were put on warning that they may have to reimpose some social and economic restrictions to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The order requires businesses, schools and day care facilities to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that patrons and employees wear face coverings when they cannot maintain a six-foot distance from others. Reasonable efforts can include such things as posting signage that state face coverings are required, giving verbal warnings to customers to wear face coverings, offering a mask to patrons and asking customers to leave if they refuse.

Under the new rules, businesses found to be out of compliance will first be given a written warning. A second offense can result in having some or all of their patrons leave the premises as needed to comply with health guidelines. If businesses refuse to comply after that, they can receive a class A misdemeanor notice and be subject to a fine ranging from $75 to $2,500.

“I have always put the health and safety of Illinoisans first, and I’m gratified that local governments now have an additional way to keep their communities safe,” Pritzker said in a statement after the JCAR vote Tuesday.

But the outcome of that vote was not a foregone conclusion. The Illinois Department of Public Health issued similar emergency rules in May, but withdrew them after lawmakers returned for their special session. Pritzker said at the time he expected lawmakers to address the enforcement issue legislatively, although it also appeared evident that there were not enough votes on JCAR to sustain the rules and it never came up for a vote before the full General Assembly.

On Tuesday, several members of the panel, particularly Republicans, said they continued to hear concerns from local businesses in their districts about why they were being held liable for enforcing the public health rules, but their customers who refuse to wear masks or keep a six-foot distance from others were not.

Among those was Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, who said callers to his office were concerned about actions of individuals leading to fines and potential misdemeanor charges for businesses.

But Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, a cochair of JCAR, said the graduated nature of the enforcement rules means businesses that are genuinely trying to comply should have nothing to fear.

“And I think it’s really important to understand what that points to is this rule is going to be enforced against rogue operators,” Cunningham said. “This is not something that is going to be easily applied even by the most zealous law enforcement agency or public health department against someone — a business that slips up once or twice. There’s just not an ability to do that based on the framework of this rule.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the rule is unlikely to have much impact on the rising spread of COVID-19 in Illinois.

“I would also remind everyone that most of the governor’s comments, most of (IDPH Director) Dr. (Ngozi) Ezike’s comments, most of the comments of other local officials have not been about rogue bars and restaurants that are tied to outbreaks,” Karr said. “They’ve been public gatherings where individuals are not wearing masks.”

Under JCAR’s rules, it takes a two-thirds majority, or eight votes on the 12-member panel, to block an emergency rule from taking effect. The panel is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and between House and Senate members.

Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, offered a motion to block the rule, but it received only six votes — all from Republicans.