Illinois’ small business owners face imprisonment, $2,500 fine for reopening under Pritzker’s order

Illinois’ small business owners face imprisonment, $2,500 fine for reopening under Pritzker’s order

The governor’s new penalty comes without approval from the Illinois General Assembly.

Without mentioning it in his press conference on May 15, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker filed a new executive order to change how businesses that violate his stay-at-home order are punished. They can now face criminal charges.

Pritzker on his own amended Illinois Department of Public Health rules so business owners can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for violating his closure order. He made the change without consulting the General Assembly, the branch of government tasked with creating laws. The rule immediately took effect on Friday, and now business owners can face maximum penalties of a $2,500 fine and one year in prison.

Members of Pritzker’s administration said this change is just a new “tool” for law enforcement to use that does not require businesses to lose their licenses or be shut down altogether, according to WTTW. They defended the unilateral move by arguing prosecutors have said they cannot take action against violators because the state had no punishment in place. Pritzker’s rule codifies violations and makes it easier for violators to be prosecuted.

Pritzker’s attorney, Ann Spillane, called the rule a “less dramatic” alternative and that “nobody’s getting arrested or handcuffed.” Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly agreed that it was not designed to punish people, but rather a way to enforce the closure of non-essential businesses and that enforcement would be done through communicating with owners first.

That’s not how many view it, especially given Pritzker wrote the law himself.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said the order is “a legal overreach and beyond the scope of the governor’s authority.”

Assistant House Minority Leader Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, agreed and said it was “the latest in a series of missteps that illustrate just how little [Pritzker] cares about the small business owners who provide the majority of jobs in this state.”

“This latest unilateral decision by the governor is one more reason why the executive branch should be working with the legislative branch on responses and solutions to the current health pandemic. The checks and balances we provide are critical to our state. These business owners are only trying to survive and to salvage what for many has been their life’s work,” Wehrli said.

State lawmakers will have the opportunity to review the rule change. Eight of the 12 members on the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules can reject it to keep the rule from continuing. If eight members fail to vote against it, the rule applies for the next 150 days.

Pritzker’s order comes as business owners across the state begin to defy his executive order and try to stay afloat after weeks of being closed. In Madison County, the health board voted to allow businesses to reopen with strict social distancing restrictions. On May 13, Pritzker responded with a pledge to deploy state police and local law enforcement against businesses that violated his executive order. He said the state would also withhold aid for local governments that decline to enforce the order.

Pritzker previously stressed it would be up to local officials to enforce the stay-at-home order and hoped individuals would do so out of concern for public health.

Sheriffs in counties across the state have already said they will not be pursing legal action against violators. DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick told the Daily Herald he is not going to make victims of residents “trying to put food on their children’s table” and that now “is not the time to introduce fear into our society by threatening Class A misdemeanors.”

Under the Restore Illinois plan, gyms and restaurants cannot open until Phase 4, the timing of which has been vague. The associations for Illinois’ retailers, manufacturers and other businesses said Pritzker did not consult with them before he crafted his plan.

A recent poll showed 75% of Illinoisans believe Pritzker should immediately allow small retail businesses to reopen with social distancing guidelines. Big box stores have been allowed to continue operations as long as they sell essential items, giving them an unfair advantage over beleaguered small businesses that have tried to survive nearly two months without income. Small business owners argue they can do a better job than big stores at cleaning and keeping customers safe from the coronavirus.

“The governor’s shelter-in-place order is very discriminatory,” said Adam White, who owns RC Outfitters running store in Peoria. “Why can Bass Pro Shop, Target and others sell shoes, socks and apparel? Somehow, they’re essential, but I’m not. What’s the logic behind a big box store like Lowe’s, Menard’s, Walmart and Target being open but not us? Why is that a safe environment and why is a small business that operates at a fraction of a capacity not a safe environment?”

So far Pritzker’s only answer to those questions has been to threaten a small business community responsible for 60% of the state’s job growth since the Great Recession. It certainly doesn’t sound like a way to promote the state’s long-term economic health.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!