Pritzker forced to withdraw criminal penalties for small business owners who defy his order

Pritzker forced to withdraw criminal penalties for small business owners who defy his order

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker rescinded the rule that could have put defiant business owners in jail for up to a year. He first imposed it when his authority to close them during the pandemic was challenged.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker decided treating the state’s struggling small business owners like criminals during the COVID-19 pandemic was not the best policy.

Pritzker’s office on May 20 withdrew his controversial rule that made a Class A misdemeanor out of violating his business closure order. The announcement came as the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR, was about to review the rule that imposed criminal penalties of up to a $2,500 fine and a year in jail.

The 12 state lawmakers on JCAR were inundated by calls and emails from constituents asking that they rescind Pritzker’s rule. More than 20,000 Illinoisans contacted JCAR members through in the 48 hours leading up to the vote. Members are evenly split between the two political parties.

Small businesses and local governments across the state have decried the unfairness of allowing large retailers to remain open and sell a wide variety of goods while smaller retailers were forced to stay closed for two months, because they did not sell “essential” items such as groceries.

“If the businesses that have been classified as essential are operating in a way that the governor feels is safe for the businesses, the employees and the customers, then we should have the right to do the same thing,” said Rob Knight, owner of a swimming school in Bloomington, Illinois.

“If the big box stores and the grocery stores and the drugstores and all the other stores that have been deemed essential can do it, then we believe we have the constitutional right to do the same.”

A vast majority of Illinoisans – 3 in 4 – believe small retail businesses should be allowed to open immediately if they follow the same social distancing requirements big box stores must follow, according to a recent Ogden and Fry poll.

Madison County declared its businesses could reopen May 13 as long as they maintained social distancing guidelines. About 80 retailers joined together to file suit against Pritzker and defy his closure order, saying he did not have the authority.

Pritzker responded to criticism by doubling down.

He amended Illinois Department of Public Health rules on May 15 so business owners could be charged with a crime for violating his closure order.

Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-North Aurora, a member of JCAR, said he was going to file a motion during the meeting to object to the governor’s new rule. He would have needed eight of the 12 JCAR members to agree.

“A single mom doing nails in her own home to try to feed her children and keep a roof over their heads would be subject to a substantial penalty, and even jail time,” Wheeler said.

Pritzker’s withdrawal of the rule means he likely did not have the votes to avoid public rejection from lawmakers – let alone their constituents.

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