Pritzker mandates indoor masks, vaccinations for school, medical workers

Pritzker mandates indoor masks, vaccinations for school, medical workers

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced all Illinoisans age 2 and up are required to wear masks inside public spaces effective Aug. 30. All school and health care workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 5, as must college students.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide indoor mask mandate for all Illinoisans effective Aug. 30, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.

And vaccinations are now required for students at state colleges, as well as school workers from prekindergarten through college, with a first-dose deadline of Sept. 5. Health care employees in hospitals, nursing homes, urgent care facilities and physician’s offices also must get a shot by that deadline.

Those failing or unable to get vaccinated must be tested once a week, Pritzker ordered.

“To be clear, what I am announcing today is a floor — at a minimum, those who work in schools and health care settings should be vaccinated or tested, keeping our kids and our most vulnerable safe,” Pritzker said during a news conference Aug. 26. “For state workers and congregate facilities, we have put in place more stringent requirements to protect our most vulnerable.”

Just days earlier, Pritzker had said he had no plans to expand a state employee vaccine mandate for those working in congregate settings, such as nursing homes, prisons, group homes and veterans homes.

The governor argued his statewide mask mandate is necessary following a spike in coronavirus cases in downstate counties where vaccination rates remain low while hospitals and front-line medical workers near capacity limits.

“The ones who currently are getting hardest hit are in southern and east-central Illinois. Fewer than half of residents are fully vaccinated, compared with over 70% in suburban Cook County,” Pritzker said. “Today, our seven-day rolling average for ICU bed availability in southern Illinois is 3%. During the spring surge, the lowest ICU bed availability anywhere in the state never dropped below 15%.”

Pritzker says the increase in hospitalizations has been driven by a surge of COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated and cases breaking through vaccinated people’s viral barrier. His ability to deny state and school workers a choice about the vaccines was emboldened by full FDA approval Aug. 23 of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and up.

The Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines are only cleared for emergency use, although they have been in widespread use.

“Remember, these vaccines are doing what they’re designed to do – essentially to eliminate the risk of hospitalization and death,” Pritzker said. “In the meantime, Illinois will join several other states that have reinstituted statewide indoor mask requirements, regardless of vaccination status, effective on [Aug. 30].”

Pritzker recently issued his 20th disaster declaration, giving him emergency powers which enables him to issue statewide mandates on his own.

Pritzker first declared a statewide disaster when COVID-19 hit in mid-March 2020, invoking the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act. A section of the act provides that in the case of a disaster, the governor can issue a proclamation declaring the disaster and grant himself 30 days of emergency powers over state institutions, operations and public health.

Pritzker has invoked his emergency powers to sign 80 executive orders into law during the past 17 months. These executive orders include issuing statewide stay-at-home orders, limiting the size of public gatherings, suspending the enforcement of laws and agency operations and closing schools and businesses deemed non-essential.

He most recently used them to mandate masks in both private and public schools, regardless of whether students and staff are vaccinated. One private school that tried to go mask optional was quickly reprimanded and threatened by the state. A school board member had his medical license threatened over his opposition.

Pritzker initially said he was allowing elected local school leaders determine mask policy, but a few weeks later he flip-flopped on the issue because he said too few were making what he considered to be the correct decision.

“Far too few school districts have chosen to follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prescription for keeping students and staff safe,” Pritzker said Aug. 4. “Given the CDC’s strong recommendation, I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is.”

The CDC “recommends” masks in schools.

While Illinois’ emergency management act states emergency powers are limited to 30 days, Pritzker has claimed he can extend his emergency power indefinitely. He simply needs to issue new disaster proclamations as they expire, which he did again Aug. 20.

Without explicit rules on if Pritzker can extend his emergency powers on his own authority, the task falls to the Illinois General Assembly to clarify with new legislation. A majority of state lawmakers have declined to do so.

Recently, Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin and other lawmakers asked Pritzker to call the legislature in for a special session to share elected leaders’ input on the COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Pritzker was asked about a special session during the Aug. 26 press conference announcing his new mandates. He said he is always open to input on how to bring down the spread of COVID, but declined to call a special session.

Most states have not allowed emergency powers to last indefinitely. Emergency executive powers are meant to allow the governor to quickly address a disaster in a way that a deliberative body such as the General Assembly cannot. But when the disaster is nearly a year and one-half old, there is little reason for rules to be dictated rather than debated and implemented by elected representatives.

Since declaring a second disaster proclamation and shutting down non-essential businesses by executive order, Pritzker has become the target of 19 lawsuits alleging he overstepped his authority.

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