Legislators vote to make masks optional on House floor

SPRINGFIELD - The Illinois House amended COVID-19 protocols Tuesday, lifting face covering requirements following weeks of pushback from Republican members who sometimes refused to wear masks and delayed the start of session on several occasions.

In a 104-1 vote, the House passed House Resolution 717 that lifted the mask requirement. Temperature checks when members walk into the chamber will no longer be implemented, and social distancing will not be required.

"Let's remove these masks together, and respect those who don't want to remove them," House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch said. "Let's be considerate of one another, and let's go to work."

The sole dissenter on the change was Rep. Lakesia Collins, the Chicago Democrat who motioned to remove GOP members from the floor on several occasions in recent weeks when they refused to comply with the face covering requirements.

House Leader Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrats, said the change in the House rules can be reversed if the COVID-19 situation changes.

Harris mentioned that while masks are now optional, it's important to respect members' wishes if they ask for masks to be worn in close contact.

Rep. Blaine Wilhour, a Beecher City Republican and a vocal mask opponent who was one of the GOP members removed from the chamber on multiple occasions recently, said the chamber has gotten "real good at taking meaningless votes on masks" the past few weeks instead of "doing the work of the people."

GOP members accused Democrats of hypocrisy for enforcing mask requirements on the House floor in February but not at fundraising events, and they faulted the majority party for not voting on the governor's authority to issue statewide mask mandates.

Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, said that as a separate branch of government, the legislature should have made decisions regarding COVID-19 protocols instead of relying on the governor's executive order.

"I hope moving forward we don't institute in our own rules, which we constitutionally have the ability to make our own rules, we don't cede our authority as the legislative branch to do something the governor does," Butler said.

House committee hearings will continue to be remote and hybrid, while the public gallery overlooking the House floor will remain open at 50% capacity.

The Senate will no longer mandate masks either, although masks are "strongly encouraged" in the chamber. A negative COVID-19 test was also still required to gain entry to Senate offices, committee rooms and press boxes as of Tuesday as well.

The Senate gallery was open at 50% capacity as of Tuesday, but wristbands showing that the person had a negative COVID-19 test were needed to gain entry into the gallery and other Senate areas.

The move comes as Democrats including Welch and Gov. J.B. Pritzker were seen maskless while cajoling crowds in Springfield after filing their reelection petitions at the Illinois State Board of Elections Monday.

Illinois' mask mandate was lifted for indoor public spaces at the end of February. Masks are still required in health care settings and on public transportation such as buses, trains, and airplanes.

On Friday, the most recent COVID-19 executive order filed by Pritzker ended mask requirements in schools, "shifting schools back to the ordinary processes for handling infectious diseases," according to a news release.

That's in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the governor's office said in a news release.

"Now that the COVID-19 surge has subsided, schools and local health departments can return to exercising their long-standing authority to address infectious disease cases among students and staff," the governor's office said in the release.

The CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health still recommend students, teachers and staff stay home when they have a confirmed case or symptoms of COVID-19 or other infectious illness. Schools should advise close contacts to stay home as well, per the release.

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