CHICAGO - Just a week after ousting bare-faced Republican lawmakers for a third time in 13 days, the Illinois House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to give the chamber’s mask mandate itself the boot.
But unlike the previous three debates over kicking out Republicans who flouted a House rule they argued was outdated and hypocritical, Tuesday’s vote came with little drama or acrimony — although one of the GOP legislators denounced the emphasis on "mask theater" while working jabs at indicted former House Speaker Mike Madigan into his floor speech.
Current Democratic House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch struck a more diplomatic tone, crediting both lawmakers who followed the COVID-19 mitigation rule and those who brought him their concerns about it.
"I want to thank those members who are on the floor right now that are honoring our House rules," the Hillside Democrat said moments before the vote. "If we disagree with the rules, we should change them, go through a process to change them. I think that’s what we’re doing here today."
"Let’s remove these masks together and respect those who don’t want to remove them."
The measure to amend the House rules and make face coverings optional in the chamber was sponsored by House Majority Leader Greg Harris, who asked lawmakers to remain masked around those who have special health issues that them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
"I would just urge folks that even though it’s not a requirement, if somebody does make a request of you because of their personal situation, that we all be respectful and help our colleagues out," the North Side Democrat said.
The resolution passed 104 to 1. The singular no vote was cast by state Rep. Lakesia Collins — who sponsored all three previous resolutions in late February and early March to remove mask scofflaws. She did not speak during Tuesday’s brief debate.
"I’m going into stores, walking in the community — they still have on masks," the Near North Side Democrat told the Sun-Times after the session adjourned. "And most of those people look like me. So that should tell you something."
Collins said the choice to wear a mask was to protect her son, who has asthma, and other immunocompromised family members.
"We’re just too close in that one room to be around with no mask on when people are still catching the virus. And so I made a personal choice today to say no. I don’t have a problem with what everyone else’s decision is," she said. "But for me, I need to represent my district and represent the people who are still suffering from the virus."
State Rep. Blaine Wilhour was one of the Republicans targeted in all three of Collins’ resolutions to remove lawmakers who flouted the mask requirement.
On Tuesday, Wilhour — again maskless — spoke from the House floor moments before the vote, largely using the occasion to blast Democrats for wasting time on masks while failing to enact ethics reforms, pointing to the allegations against Madigan, which he dubbed "a national embarrassment."
"We’re real good at taking meaningless votes over the past couple of weeks on mask theater," the Beecher City Republican said. "But we’re either too weak or too compromised to tackle the epidemic of public corruption that has engulfed this place, that’s engulfed this whole state, and it’s kept us from doing the work of the people."
After the vote, Wilhour told reporters the face covering rule was "something that’s defied science and logic and the rest of the world for some time."
"We’ve really been talking about it for the last month that you know, the rest of the world has moved on, they’ve made it optional," he said.
State Rep. Adam Niemerg, another Republican who was removed from the House floor three times, said the mandate would "undoubtedly" still be in place if he and his GOP colleagues didn’t challenge it.
"After being escorted off the House floor several times, I asked to have a sit-down conversation with Illinois House Speaker Emanuel Chris Welch about finding a suitable agreement on the mask policy, which we did have last week," the Dieterich Republican said in a statement.
"Mask optional is the norm in Illinois and the floor of the Illinois House should not be an exception to this policy," he said.
The state Senate removed its mask requirement on Monday, following the end of the state’s indoor mask mandate in most public settings on Feb. 28.
But even as they welcomed the lifting of the mask rules, Republicans spent more time talking about Madigan.
Wilhour suggested lawmakers "get around to making sure that we put real anti-corruption safeguards in place to ensure that corrupt politicians like Michael Madigan don’t use their public position to run a criminal enterprise."
Last week, the Southwest Side Democrat was indicted on 22 counts, charged with a racketeering conspiracy and allegedly using interstate facilities for bribery, wire fraud and attempted extortion.
Madigan has denied being involved in any criminal activity.
State Rep. Mark Batinick, who advocated for masks to be worn early on in the pandemic, said the masks seem insignificant "in the wake of last week."
"It’s frustrating that we’re not doing the substantive work that we should be doing," the Plainfield Republican said after the session adjourned. "Masks, no masks, whatever. I want some anti-corruption bills passed."