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Bipartisan committee blocks Pritzker’s emergency mask rule for schools

By GREG BISHOP, The Center Square

The governor’s latest school mask mandate rule was blocked by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR).

The bipartisan committee of Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the Senate and the House voted 9-0 with two not voting to block Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reissued emergency rules requiring schools to enforce his mask mandate despite a recent court ruling. Pritzker’s emergency rule was filed Monday.

“Today, the Joint Committee of Administrative Rules made it clear that we would not accept the Governor’s attempts to go above a court ruling made by a co-equal branch of government,” state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said in a statement.

School districts across the state have gone mask optional after a Sangamon County Circuit Court judge, ruling on a lawsuit brought by hundreds of parents,  issued a temporary restraining order Feb. 4 against mask mandates in schools, saying the governor’s mandate is “null and void.” But, there are other schools, including Chicago Public Schools, defying the judge’s restraining order. They’re set to appear before the Sangamon County judge later this month.

The Pritzker administration is appealing the judge’s ruling. After JCAR’s vote, the Fourth District Court of Appeals directed the attorney general, who represents Pritzker and the state, and attorneys representing the plaintiffs to explain by Wednesday afternoon how the appeal is affected by the vote.

“In his quest for power and control, Pritzker and his Administration was willing to further the chaos and confusion for schools throughout the state,” Rezin said. “With this bipartisan vote, I hope that the governor finally recognizes that his go-it-alone tactic is not in the best interest of our state or its people.”

None of the JCAR members voted against the motion to suspend the governor’s rule, but state Sens. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, and Tony Munoz, D-Chicago, voted present. State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, was not in attendance for the vote.

Earlier in the day, tensions in the House flared over mask mandates, with one member’s microphone being cut off and another asking for maskless lawmakers to be ejected.

As the House was coming to order for the first time since early January, state Rep. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet, announced from the speaker’s chair the House rule for members to wear masks.

“We ask that all members take these directives seriously to help keep fellow members and staff safe,” Manley said.

State Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, wasn’t wearing a face covering.

“I could read [the rule] again for you, if you’d like me to,” Manley said.

“That won’t be necessary, madam speaker,” Wilhour said. “So long as school districts continue to defy the court and force unwanted and unnecessary covering of the faces of children in the …”

“You have not been recognized,” Manley said as Wilhour’s microphone was turned off.

Just before the House went into session, a joint statement from Wilhour and state Reps. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, and Chris Miller, R-Oakland, said they “ditched their masks on the House floor.”

“Today we entered the House chambers without a mask,” their statement said. “So long as school districts continue to defy the courts and force the unwanted and unnecessary covering of the faces of children in schools, we will no longer comply with the mask theater that takes place here.”

“It’s over,” the group of Republicans said in the statement. “[Mask mandates have] gone on long enough.”

Despite that, Manley insisted the House mask rule be followed, including wearing masks while speaking at the microphone.

State Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, pointed out the last time they were in session, the rules allowed masks to come off while speaking at their microphones.

“Are we following the science, or are we not following the science,” Davidsmeyer asked.

“I’m following the rule,” Manley said.

Davidsmeyer then pointed out recent fundraising events where Democrats were seen not wearing masks.

“So I think that it’s a little disingenuous to say that we have to do it while we’re here on the House floor, but you don’t have to when you’re in a big group, many of you all together at the same time,” Davidsmeyer said.

State Rep. Lakesia Collins, D-Chicago, said her son has asthma and lawmakers should wear masks.

“What do we do about those members who refuse to follow those rules, because it’s putting people like me, who look like me, in danger,” Collins said, noting that the Black community is impacted by COVID-19.

She said the Republicans’ actions are a “political circus” and asked for others to wear a mask.

“If not, do exactly what we need to do to remove these people from the chamber,” Collins said.

The House later adjourned without incident. Members not following House rules could face disorderly behavior and expelled with a two-thirds vote of the members.

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