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Face off on masks looming in Springfield? Two downstate Republicans balk at COVID-19 precautions

Mulling an about-face, state Rep. Brad Halbrook and fellow Republican state Rep. Darren Bailey said they won’t commit to wearing masks when the House meets on Wednesday, potentially creating a standoff between them and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, left; State Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, right.
State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, left; State Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, right.
rephalbrook.com; Facebook.

SPRINGFIELD — With the pandemic now nearing its fourth month in Illinois, most residents have made up their minds on whether to wear masks or other face coverings, but two downstate Republicans say they need a few days to think it over.

“It boils down, in my book, to a matter of personal choice,” said state Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville.

That declaration of personal choice could soon be put to the test.

That’s because next week the Illinois Legislature is scheduled to return to session for the first time since March 5, but that return is not without some changes. Notably, the Illinois House will meet at the Bank of Springfield Center, and legislators will be asked to wear face masks, submit to COVID-19 tests and temperature checks and adhere to social distancing measures.

Mulling an about-face, Halbrook and fellow Republican state Rep. Darren Bailey of downstate Xenia said they won’t commit to wearing masks when the House meets on Wednesday, potentially creating a standoff between them and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Public health officials, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend people wear cloth face coverings in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain” not only to prevent themselves from getting sick but also to prevent someone from unknowingly contracting the virus and spreading it to others.

And on Friday, Republican House Leader Jim Durkin urged GOP legislators to abide by those rules.

But Bailey, who is suing Gov. J.B. Pritzker over the Chicago Democrat’s stay-at-home order, said he’s not concerned about contracting COVID-19 and that House members who are should stay away from Springfield next week.

“So, if you are concerned about your health then, by all means, you should stay home or you wear a mask,” Bailey said. “If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, then they’re simply taking the risk themselves.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey, left; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right.
State Rep. Darren Bailey, left; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right.
Facebook; Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times file

Halbrook said he is concerned that wearing a face covering could have negative health consequences for him. While Halbrook did not say whether he had an underlying health condition that could prevent him from wearing a mask, he said he wants to meet with his primary care doctor before he makes that decision.

“I need to understand one-on-one with a professional what the dangers are, what is the upside, what’s the downside,” Halbrook said. “I just want to have that conversation, and I have not been able to get to that person to have that conversation. I’m just trying to make a well-informed decision.”

For weeks, Republicans called for the General Assembly return, but it was only after Pritzker joined that chorus that fellow Democrats Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon agreed.

In a letter to Durkin announcing the return to Springfield, Madigan wrote that he was asking House members to follow “approved precautions” from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which included wearing a face mask.

With Bailey and Halbrook as potential holdouts, Durkin sent a letter his GOP caucus on Friday asking members to “abide by best practices and safety protocols put forth by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which include temperature checks and wearing a protective mask.”

“We have a duty to not only uphold the Constitution but to also protect the health and well-being of our citizens and that includes our staff, House personnel, our colleagues, their families and members of the public,” the Western Springs Republican wrote.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, in 2019.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register file

Bailey and Halbrook are the first two Republicans to object.

In response, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, took to Twitter to call for the downstate Republicans and any other House members who refuse to wear face coverings to be “banned from entering the convention center.”

“Your intentional, reckless act to ignore the face mask guidance will risk lives. I’m aware of members in our caucus and your caucus with newborns at home,” Welch tweeted.

Whether any bare-faced legislators will be barred from the Bank of Springfield Center remains to be seen.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown wouldn’t say whether the guidelines spelled out by the Southwest Side Democrat will be enforced, only that “we remain very hopeful that all members respect their colleagues and staff.”