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Pritzker ends school mask mandate, claims victory as Ill. Supreme Court hands him mixed ruling

Capitol News Illinois

Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday evening announced an end to the state’s school mask mandate shortly after the Illinois Supreme Court denied his appeal seeking the justices overturn a Sangamon County judge’s decision earlier this month that sought to halt the governor’s executive orders requiring masking in school settings.

Despite being denied his bid for appeal, however, Pritzker still claimed victory on Friday, pointing to the justices’ other action. In a 5 - 2 decision, the state’s high court vacated Judge Raylene Grischow’s Feb. 4 temporary restraining order on enforcement of the school mask mandate, in which she sided with plaintiffs’ legal argument that masks are a form of quarantine.

In a statement, Pritzker said he was “gratified” the justices vacated Grischow’s TRO, and interpreted the court’s brief one-paragraph order to mean his authority to issue any future school mask mandates is still in tact — a power he’s repeatedly said is necessary should the COVID-19 pandemic take a turn for the worse.

The justices’ decision Friday came a week after Pritzker suffered two blows in his battle to preserve his mask mandate in schools. First, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers voted to reject the governor’s re-up of emergency rules underpinning the school mask mandate, which expire every 150 days. Days later, the state’s Fourth District Appellate Court denied Pritzker’s appeal as “moot” following the lawmakers’ rejection of those renewed mask mandate rules.

Pritzker had for weeks maintained his executive order requiring masking in schools superseded the underlying rules. But after the justices’ ruling Friday spelled the end of the road for his fight to maintain the current school mask mandate, the governor reversed course, using a surprise Friday announcement by the Centers for Disease control as an anchor to pivot his messaging.

As the pandemic approaches the two-year mark, the CDC has changed its framework for how the agency calculates COVID risk within communities moving forward. Instead of focusing primarily on transmission of the virus, the updated metric is more concerned with preventing hospitals from getting overwhelmed, weighing new COVID patient admits and already hospitalized patients with new case counts.

As a result, most U.S. counties’ COVID risk levels were downgraded, including 40 counties in Illinois whose risk level is now considered “low,” meaning masks are no longer recommended, per the CDC’s updated guidance. In counties with “moderate” COVID risk — a designation currently given to 41 counties in Illinois — masks are only recommended for those at high risk for illness. Masks are still recommended for counties with a high COVID risk designation, including 21 in Illinois.

 COVID risk levels by county, per new CDC calculations. Masks are no longer recommended in counties with low COVID risk (green) and moderate risk (yellow).
Screenshot via Centers for Disease Control
COVID risk levels by county, per new CDC calculations. Masks are no longer recommended in counties with low COVID risk (green) and moderate risk (yellow).

“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,” Pritzker said in his Friday evening statement. “We will recommend that all school districts follow CDC guidance and will update our existing guidance in the coming days.”

Monday is also the day Pritzker picked weeks ago to dispense with Illinois’ mask mandate for the general public.

In a statement Friday night, Illinois Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) urged Pritzker to think twice about trying to implement another school mask mandate in the future, praising the lawmakers who blocked the governor’s attempt to renew the emergency rules last week.

“Pritzker will now have to go back to those same legislators if he wishes to issue a similar order, where he is likely to meet the same fate,” McConchie said. “The Governor should accept defeat and allow us to begin to govern the way we ought to be—through collaboration of the Legislature and local stakeholders.”

The majority of Illinois’ approximately 850 school districts had already gone mask-optional in the weeks following Judge Grischow’s decision, pressured by vocal minorities of parents and students despite recent public opinion polling still showing high support for required masking in schools across the board.

Grischow’s TRO stemmed from cases brought on behalf of students and staff at 246 school districts, plus teachers and staff at nearly two dozen other districts who argued Pritzker’s executive order requiring school staff get vaccinated for COVID or submit to regular testing was also tantamount to forced quarantine.

The protracted and public legal battle this month only served to raise the public profile of the attorney behind the cases: Tom DeVore. The Clay County lawyer rose to prominence when he represented State Sen. Darren Bailey in a lawsuit against Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders in the early months of the pandemic. Since then, DeVore has filed dozens of suits challenging COVID mitigations, with mixed results.

DeVore had been actively running for a seat on the state’s Fourth District Appellate Court, but this week changed course and announced his bid for the GOP nomination for Attorney General.

Copyright 2022 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Meisel works for Capitol News Illinois.