Pritzker rule would fine businesses that violate mask order

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday that public health officials may issue fines to Illinois businesses where employees or patrons aren’t wearing face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Pritzker said the emergency rules he filed focus on “scofflaw” businesses who flout the requirement since May 1 that people in public who are unable to keep 6 feet away from others must wear masks. Enforcement begins with warnings and can result in fines of $75 to $2,500.

Since a reduction in infections in June prompted Pritzker to re-open businesses and allow for larger groups — up to 50 — to gather, the highly contagious and sometimes-fatal virus has been on a summerlong rebound.

“It’s clear that there is still an even greater need to get people to wear masks, especially to protect frontline workers, whether they’re (associates) at the front of the store asking you to put on your mask, whether they’re (rescue workers) responding to 911 calls to save those in distress,” Pritzker said.

Enforcement begins with a warning letter that the business is not complying with social restrictions. A second warning could mean reducing the number of patrons in an establishment to meet maximum crowd guidelines. A third violation could mean a fine. But Pritzker says it’s preferable to current law, in which the lone enforcement mechanism for violations is license revocation.

Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants’ Association, called the initiative “a slap in the face” to retailers who have sacrificed so much during this pandemic” while it’s reckless individual behavior that fuels it.

“If the goal is to put public health above politics, the administration will amend the rule to focus enforcement efforts on individuals who are not complying instead of punishing and attempting to demonize innocent businesses,” Karr said.

The Democrat’s announcement in Chicago came the same day that Illinois reported 2,084 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the highly contagious and sometimes-fatal coronavirus. It’s the first time since May 24 that the number has topped 2,000.

The illness has now claimed more than 7,600 lives among more than 190,000 infections of people, most of whom have recovered but who could suffer long-lasting effects. And the Illinois Department of Public Health announced Friday that 13 counties are on COVID-19 “warning level” status, meaning unchecked surges in virus transmission could result in greater social restrictions.

Pritzker’s rule requires approval by the bicameral, bipartisan Joint Committee of Administrative Rules, the group of lawmakers who couldn’t reach a decision on Pritzker’s May attempt to establish enforcement for violating safety guidelines.

Rep. Jim Durkin, the Western Springs Republican who is minority leader of the Illinois House, said Pritzker should dump his “mask rule” and offer the issue for legislative debate.

“I am committed to respecting his priorities while recognizing the undue hardship his current rule places on businesses that are already struggling across Illinois,” Durkin said.

Durkin has previously issued unheeded calls for special sessions to debate how the economy and state would be re-opened and released from social restrictions and to take up long-delayed ethics reforms after a federal deal in which ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine to settle a Statehouse bribery claim, announced last month, implicated Chicago Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. He has not been charged with wrongdoing. Durkin again sought an ethics debate in Friday’s announcement.

Pritzker also signed a measure into law adding penalties to those who assault retail workers who are asking patrons to abide by safety guidelines. The law also provides 60 days of additional disability leave to some state and local government employees such as correctional officers and firefighters for those whose recovery was slowed by COVID-19.