(The Center Square) – Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Friday he wants a rule that would allow businesses to be fined up to $2,500 for failing to enforce regulations for face coverings and social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Pritzker said the Illinois Department of Public Health is submitting administrative rules to allow for a progression of enforceable actions ranging from an enforcement officer educating an establishment about the rules, to a warning and then to a monetary fine of between $75 and $2,500. He announced the plan at a news conference joined by union leaders, the Illinois Restaurant Association and others.

The governor said the administrative rules will assist law enforcement, local boards of health, school districts and the general public in enforcing the use of face coverings and social gathering restrictions.

“Illinois has made substantial progress in our fight against COVID-19 because the vast majority of communities and business owners have done the right thing,” Pritzker said in a statement. “These rules will help ensure that the minority of people who refuse to act responsibly won’t take our state backward.”

A member of the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules who has seen a draft copy of the rule expected to be addressed Tuesday in Springfield said a special session of the legislature is needed to debate the issues, rather than unilateral rules.

“I am very skeptical and uncomfortable with the administration setting up new criminal enforcement regulation outside of the legislative process,” said state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association is opposed to the proposal. The group said individuals should face fines and businesses shouldn't have to enforce the governor's rules.

“This proposed rule lacks common sense and is a slap in the face to the thousands of retailers who have sacrificed so much during this pandemic while actively supporting ever-changing health and safety guidelines adopted by the state," said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "Indeed, many of the guidelines ultimately adopted by the state were modeled by retailers well before they were implemented by the state.” 

“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. "State officials have for months complained about improper behavior by individuals at parties, parks, and other public places, yet they are specifically exempting individuals from enforcement. The Governor is right – this is a make-or-break moment for the state. Either the Administration will support the businesses who have been on the front line of this pandemic and focus efforts on the individuals who are not complying with the face covering mandate, or they risk squandering this moment in time.”

The governor attempted to criminalize businesses that didn’t comply with his rules back in May, but repealed the rule before a Joint Commission on Administrative Rules hearing.

“We withdrew it because the legislature said they’d take it up in session, they didn’t do that,” Pritzker said. “But now is the time we must make sure. This is a make-or-break moment for ensuring people are doing everything they can to mitigate, to reduce the spread. This is a moment to enforce ... across the state.”

He said he wanted to make sure there’s a minimum enforcement measure for local and county governments to enforce if they don’t have their own ordinances, and to go after businesses he said are “scofflaws.”

The governor on Friday also said legislation he enacted will allow for criminal charges against someone who assaults or batters front line workers at businesses trying to enforce face-covering requirements and increasing benefits for first responders.

Schimpf said the legislature needed to make state laws, not the governor.

“The governor’s actions do not match his rhetoric," Schimpf said. "If he wants people to believe that this is an emergency and following his guidance the best way to do that is to start acting like it's an emergency and call a special of the General Assembly to deal with this.”

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, called for there to be a special session on the mask rule, but also to address ethics reforms. 

"Today, I am calling on Governor Pritzker to abandon his ‘mask rule’ and work with the legislature on this issue," Durkin said in a statement. "I am committed to respecting his priorities while recognizing the undue hardship his current rule places on businesses that are already struggling across Illinois. To do this, the Governor should immediately call the legislature into special session where we can also address the urgent need for ethics reform and the controversies surrounding the Democratic Party and Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.”

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience and hosts the WMAY Morning Newsfeed out of Springfield.