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Illinois launches $5 million mask awareness campaign, Pritzker opens door to fines for those who disregard rules

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils a new mask awareness campaign called "It Only Works If You Wear It" during a news conference Aug. 3 in Springfield.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils a new mask awareness campaign called "It Only Works If You Wear It" during a news conference Aug. 3 in Springfield. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register)

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday unveiled a $5 million multimedia campaign to push the use of face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, and said he is open to considering fines for those who flout mask regulations.

The ad campaign will carry the tagline “It only works if you wear it” and will focus on cities and counties in the state that “have the most work to do,” Pritzker said. The effort was launched in Springfield, days after Sangamon County was one of 11 counties in the state flagged by the Illinois Department of Public Health as at a “warning level” based on COVID-19 metrics.

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The campaign will “respond to the latest trends in cases and mobility at the county level,” concentrating the spending on areas of the state where COVID-19 metrics indicate a potential resurgence.

Gov. Pritzker's mask awareness campaign: "It Only Works If You Wear It."
Gov. Pritzker's mask awareness campaign: "It Only Works If You Wear It." (State of Illinois)

For people who “are absolutely refusing” to wear a mask in public, “they’re putting other people at risk, so it’s worthy of considering a fine at a local level,” Pritzker said while introducing the ad campaign.

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Despite the mask requirement taking effect in Illinois more than three months ago, some people have refused to wear masks in public places and enforcement has presented an issue.

In May, Pritzker asked a bipartisan legislative rule-making panel to consider a rule change that would make businesses liable to a misdemeanor criminal charge, punishable by a $2,500 fine or 364 days in jail, for opening in violation of his stay-at-home order.

The controversial proposal was quickly met with complaints that the penalties were too harsh, and when it appeared the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules was poised to block it, Pritzker backed off.

Pritzker appears ready to try for another rule. He said his administration is mulling a mask enforcement rule, noting that the General Assembly did not take up legislation that would have implemented such a measure during its four-day pandemic-driven special session in May.

“We certainly are considering what rule we could put in place that JCAR would approve,” Pritzker said. “But I would say it’s the legislature, it’s true, that hasn’t been willing to move forward on a mask mandate. But I have one in place for the state and cities and counties have been actually very good, for the most part, about suggesting to people that this is enforceable.”

Pritzker acknowledged it is difficult for restaurant, bar, retail and other business owners to enforce mask rules in their establishment without a measure in place for public health or police “to come in and at least remind everybody, put a warning in place for everybody.”

On a downstate tour over the past week, Pritzker has encouraged local leaders in areas with rising COVID-19 cases and other metrics to impose their own mitigation measures before it reaches a level where the state would step in.

The campaign launch comes as the state’s seven-day average positivity rate for COVID-19 now stands at 4%, compared with 2.6% as of July 3.

Public health officials on Monday announced 1,298 newly confirmed cases of coronavirus statewide during the prior 24 hours, and 10 additional deaths of people with COVID-19. That brings the statewide total for known cases to 183,241, and 7,526 deaths of people with COVID-19, since the pandemic began.

Pritzker imposed a statewide mask mandate on May 1 for people over the age of 2 who are medically able to wear a face covering, as the state moved into the second phase of his “Restore Illinois” reopening plan.

The new mask campaign will be broadcast through social media, radio, television and billboards in both English and Spanish. The state expects to be reimbursed for the cost of the campaign through federal coronavirus funds, Pritzker said.

Amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment and an urgent need for masks for medical workers, some officials discouraged the public from masking early on in the United States’ fight against the coronavirus pandemic. In early April, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention triggered a shift when it began encouraging people to wear cloth face coverings when they leave their homes.

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CDC mask guidance that was last updated July 16 recommends people wear masks in public settings and “when around people who don’t live in your household,” and says masks are “most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings.”

Last month, while testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, Pritzker called for a national mask mandate, and said the statewide mask rule that took effect for most public spaces in Illinois on May 1 “aligns with our most significant downward shifts in our infection rate.”

On June 26, all regions of Illinois moved into phase four of Pritzker’s reopening plan, when gatherings of up to 50 people were allowed, as well as capacity-limited indoor dining and entertainment options such as movie theaters and performing arts centers.

The seven-day statewide average positivity rate rose through July, prompting state officials last week to warn that if regions of the state hit certain metrics, stricter rules to curb the spread of coronavirus will be imposed in those areas.

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