CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker was joined by public health experts on Sunday as he emphasized the need to maintain rules about wearing masks and social distancing to fight the pandemic – without politics getting into it.
On Friday, Pritzker issued new rules allowing local authorities to fine businesses, schools, and child care facilities that repeatedly fail to enforce the statewide mask mandate and social distancing requirements.
Pritzker said the new emergency rule would set up a three-step enforcement process.
First, businesses will be educated about the need to comply with the requirement for people to wear a mask in public whenever they can’t maintain at least six feet of distance from others. Second, businesses that do not comply will be given written warnings, and ordered to have some or all of their customers leave the premises as needed to comply with public health guidelines. Finally, businesses that repeatedly violate public health requirements will be subject to a Class A misdemeanor, subject to a fine of $75 to $2,500.
Speaking from Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Sunday, Pritzker emphasized why the rule is important. He noted that 82 percent of Americans are under a mask mandate as it is, and all public health professionals support the enforcement of both mask use and social distancing.
Pritzker said the rule is also for the benefit of “the businesses that are following the rules while their competitors flout them. We’re doing this for the people who have to work in the stores where their bosses won’t enforce public health rules, thereby putting their lives and health at risk.”
The governor compared a business that fails to enforce mask requirements to the failure to follow other sanitary requirements with which few if any would argue.
“Imagine if employees didn’t wash their hands or cooks could stick your fingers in the food” and a restaurant owner called it “no big deal,” Pritzker said. He also compared the refusal to wear masks to someone smoking a cigarette in a restaurant and blowing the smoke in everyone’s face, and then saying it was his choice.
Pritzker also noted that we have known for some time that a mask protects the wearer from others in case the wearer is sick, and now, “Study after study after study has shown us that if you wear a mask, it protects you too.”
He also emphasized just how serious the situation with the coronavirus pandemic is. In the last four months, more than 160,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 – more than in the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War combined. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Americans have not contracted COVID-19 and still could – and potentially, more than a million Americans could die of the disease.
“Every horrible thing that we’ve seen so far is nothing compared to what we could see if we throw up our hands in the air right now,” Pritzker said.
The mask enforcement rule will soon go before the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Gov. Pritzker urged the committee to pass the rule.
Also at the news conference, Illinois Department of of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike emphasized that coronavirus cases are rising in all areas of the state among all age ranges. On Sunday alone, a total of 1,382 new cases were reported along with eight new deaths.
Dr. Emily Landon, lead epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, added that masks are “not that complicated,” and, “I just can’t figure out why they’re so controversial.”
Back in March, Landon spoke alongside Pritzker as he announced a stay-at-home order for Illinois. At that time, Landon said it was the only way forward.
On Sunday, Landon said people need to wear masks if they don’t want another stay-at-home order.
“If everyone wore masks as required, we could avoid another stay-at-home order,” Landon said. “We understand so much more about this virus than we did when I spoke to you about a stay-at-home order in March.”
She said if everyone gets with the program on masks, social distancing, and other precautions, there does not need to be a binary choice between a stay-at-home order and giving up on fighting the pandemic.
But doing nothing is not an option for a virus that is killing the equivalent of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks every three days nationwide.
“COVID isn’t a bogeyman who lives under your bed and goes away when you stop being afraid of him,” Landon said. “It’s a real threat.”
Dr. Robert Murphy, an infectious disease expert at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, noted that Illinois’ infection rate is moving in the wrong direction and something has to change.
Nationwide, the U.S. is seeing 115 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people – the worst worldwide behind Brazil, Murphy said. In Western Europe by contrast, Spain – which is seeing a renewed problem with COVID-19, has 55 cases per 100,000, France has 15, and Germany has only seven.
In Germany, if a state or region exceeds 50 new cases per 100,000, it is shut down, Murphy said. By that standard, Illinois with 97 cases per 100,000 would be shut down now.
Overall, Illinois and neighboring states are somewhere in the middle when it comes to coronavirus infection rates, Murphy said. Florida has 217 cases per 100,000, Texas 187, and California 118; while Massachusetts has 39, New York 24, and Maine seven, Murphy said.
Former IDPH Director Dr. Damon Arnold noted that just down the street from Northwestern Memorial Hospital is Lurie Children’s Hospital, where people who refuse to wear masks could be putting sick children’s lives at risk.
“Put the mask on, just do it,” he said.