About face? Pritzker to end school mask edict Monday — after CDC eases guidelines and court denies appeal
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s move came hours after the Illinois Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal of a decision in a lawsuit challenging Pritzker’s mask mandate. But the state’s top court also tossed a Sangamon County judge’s temporary restraining order, issued earlier this month, that invalidated the mandate.
All schools in Illinois will be able to go mask-optional if they wish on Monday, joining most other indoor public settings across the state.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said late Friday he will halt his embattled school mask mandate on Monday — the same day he is lifting the COVID-19 requirement in other areas. The governor tweeted out the decision, citing new guidelines the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday easing its recommendations on face coverings as the Omicron surge ebbs across the nation.
Pritzker’s move also comes hours after the Illinois Supreme Court earlier in the day refused to hear the governor’s appeal of a decision in a lawsuit challenging his mask mandate.But the state’s top court denial also tossed out a Sangamon County judge’s temporary restraining order issued earlier this month that halted the mandate.
“I’m gratified that the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s restraining order, meaning that if a school mask mandate needs to go into effect in the future, we continue to have that authority,” Pritzker said in his tweet.
“I’m also extremely pleased to say that because the CDC has recommended that masks are needed only in areas of high transmission, the State of Illinois will move forward to remove our school mask mandate, effective Monday. We will recommend that all school districts follow CDC guidance and will update our existing guidance in the coming days.”
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul had appealed to the state’s top court after an Illinois appellate court dismissed Pritzker’s appeal of a downstate judge’s order that invalidated his statewide school mask mandate.
The appeal, requested by Pritzker, came even though the governor had announced he was lifting his indoor mask mandate for the general public on Monday — and that he expected to do the same for schools in “a matter of weeks” after that.
Pritzker had said that even though COVID-19 hospitalizations and other metrics were taking dramatic turns for the better, he wanted to hold on to his ability to impose another mask mandate in case of another surge.
Although the string of defeats in the courts had dealt a blow to one of the Democratic governor’s key COVID-19 mitigation strategies, he focused Friday on maintaining that prevention tool for future emergencies.
The Supreme Court ruling means local school districts can still impose their own mask mandates if they want to, but the governor can’t force them to do so, as he had been able to since last summer.
But Pritzker’s Republican rivals weren’t buying his take on the situation.
“Gov. Pritzker’s spin on today’s ruling is dizzying,” GOP challenger Jesse Sullivan said in a statement.
“It took horrible polling numbers, members of his own party voting against him and judges ruling his orders moot before he finally allowed his school mask mandate to expire. This is a victory for Illinois parents who simply want the freedom to do what is best for their children.”
State Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia characterized the governor as “a trust fund billionaire who can’t handle being told no.
“He’s a spoiled tyrant who wants to force masks on your kids and parents and the courts have told him no,” the downstate GOP gubernatorial hopeful tweeted. “His team trying to claim victory after being handed another loss is laughable.”
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin and running mate Avery Bourne tweeted, “This decision is the first step in ending Pritzker’s unilateral authority over Illinoisans!”
“Three strikes and you’re out,” Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine tweeted, “This time the Illinois Supreme Court tells him he’s wrong. But this won’t stop him because he knows better than parents how to raise kids.”
The appellate court had ruled that Pritzker’s appeal of the controversial order that gutted his school mask mandate was rendered “moot” after a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers last week rejected an attempt by the Illinois Department of Public Health to re-institute mask rules for classrooms.
The state top court’s refusal to hear the governor’s appeal likely means faces will remain bare in many suburbs and downstate communities that have been roiled by protests on both sides of the polarizing mask debate since Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow issued her Feb. 4 ruling against Pritzker’s mandate.
The CDC’s latest guidelines put more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals — meaning those people no longer need to wear masks.
But the federal agency is still advising people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s applies to about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans live.
In Illinois, masks are still recommended in 21 counties across southern and central Illinois, but not in any part of the Chicago area.
Contributing: Associated Press