School masks, state worker vaccinations required in Illinois

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks about new mask mandates for schools, state employees and long term care facilities during a COVID-19 press conference at the Thompson Center, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Chicago. (Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
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AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday ordered face coverings for all school children from preschool through 12th grade to thwart the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Democratic governor also said he will require all state employees who work in highly populated facilities such as prisons to be vaccinated.

With the potentially deadly virus continuing to spread, worsened by the more virulent delta variant, Pritzker urged residents who have not been vaccinated to get the shots necessary to prevent the illness and its spread.

“Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes, and it shifts…,” Pritzker said in Chicago. “I want to say this, specifically to young adults: Please do not think that the worst-case scenario can’t happen to you. It can happen. It is happening. Get vaccinated.”

The required vaccination for state employees applies to those who work in prisons and juvenile detention facilities, veterans’ homes and state facilities for the mentally and developmentally disabled. Each must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 4.

Employers both private and public have begun requiring shots against the deadly virus — President Joe Biden is considering such a requirement for all federal employees — and the law appears to be on the side of the boss. Employers can make vaccination a condition of employment, experts say.

Roberta Lynch, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most of those affected by the vaccination order, said those workers have been reporting to work since the beginning of the pandemic “putting their own health and safety at risk to assure public safety and provide essential care.”

Lynch said the union is prepared to discuss parameters with the Pritzker administration “to ensure fairness for employees while safeguarding the health of staff and all those who reside in these facilities.”

While the debate over vaccines has caused deep divisions nationally, face coverings have lit an even shorter fuse. They are an aegis against transmission for some, an unwelcome and unjust intrusion for others, with local school boards the latest battleground. The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Illinois Education Association, issued a statement indicating its agreement with the governor’s action.

“Let’s pull together and take care of one another. Vax up and mask up. We owe it to our students and we owe it to each other,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. “We’re so thankful to have leadership in this state that won’t let the virus fester and grow. But, it us up to all of us to bring COVID-19 to its knees.”

School safety was paramount last winter when Chicago public school teachers threatened to walk out before Mayor Lori Lightfoot negotiated safety protocols before students returned for in-person learning.

Republicans, as they have since the early day of Pritzker’s involvement in stemming the pandemic, continued to criticize the governor’s unilateral approach to mitigation of the virus’ impact. Senate GOP Leader Dan McConchie of the Chicago suburb of Hawthorn Woods used Pritzker’s “All In Illinois” COVID-19 mantra in his critique.

“He himself refuses to be ‘all in’ with state and local elected officials who better understand their geographic areas and their communities’ needs,” McConchie said in a statement. “If he really wants to achieve the best possible mitigation results, he would abandon this singular approach and instead bring others to the governing table to ensure that mitigation efforts will be broadly accepted by the populace and effectively implemented.”

Pritzker, who last week ordered that face coverings be worn by anyone entering a state building, also said Wednesday masks would be required in all long-term care facilities, including those privately owned. That jibes with the industry’s response, as the nation’s largest nursing-home owner, Genesis Heathcare, announced it would require 70,000 employees at 400 facilities nationwide to get the shot.

Advocate Aurora Health announced Wednesday it would require vaccinations for 75,000 hospital workers in Illinois and Wisconsin as well.

“I know this is hard,” Pritzker said, addressing people who have gotten the shot. “You did the right thing … and now, because of the new delta variant and the high number of unvaccinated people in the United States feels like we’re going backwards…. I want to ask you one more thing. Talk to someone in your life who could get the vaccine, but hasn’t. Share your story, share why you did it.”