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McLean County Pushes Mask Education Over Enforcement

Sign encouraging mask use
Eric Stock
A sign at the entrance to Bloomington High Schol requires the public to wear a mask before entering.

Gov. JB Pritzker's new emergency mask order puts the burden of enforcement on businesses, schools and daycares.They can now be fined, or even criminally charged, if they don't make sure customers and employees mask up, but it’s not clear how much it will be enforced in McLean County.

Heather Stiles owns Adrian's Shoes in Bloomington. It's a small store in a strip mall, so keeping social distance can be a challenge.

“We have on some occasions had to limit the number of customers we have in the store at one time,” Stiles said. “Things have been relatively steady though, so we haven’t had to address that.”

Stiles said her business already enforces the mandate, but she doesn't like the possibility she will be held responsible if someone refuses.

“That does bother me being a business owner in Illinois. I think the consumer has to have some accountability as well,” Stiles said.

Don Knapp
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said his office hasn't taken any action against the public for mask non-compliance.

County prosecutors have the final say in deciding charges and fines. McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said his office hasn't taken any action against individuals or businesses over masks. He said his office would consider charges if police or health officials file reports.

According to the governor's order, a first offense leads to a warning. On a second offense, the government can order everyone out of a business if someone inside is creating a health risk. If that doesn't work, they can fine a business between $700 and $2,500.

Officials in McLean County said they hesitate to take a punitive approach.

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said his department occasionally gets calls about people not wearing masks in public.

“We’re not going to be rushing out and issuing citations on this. That’s not our intent,” Bleichner said. “Based on what we have seen to this point, why would we? We have had cooperation from the businesses at this point when we work with them. Between us and the (McLean County) Health Department, it seems to be a very productive approach.”

Jessica McKnight
Credit McLean County
McLean County Health Department administrator Jessica McKnight has said the county's follow-ups with businesses have generally led to compliance.

Police relay complaints to the McLean County Health Department. Administrator Jessica McKnight has said from the beginning her office prefers education versus enforcement.

“I anticipate we will probably see more complaints now that this (mask order) has been public and people know there is a method that they can take to report those complaints about masking, but we are going to follow those same due process procedures that we always did,” McKnight said.

McKnight said education is usually effective. Businesses generally cooperate after a follow-up. She said the county's COVID positivity rates and hospitalizations are lower than in many other areas in the state.

Pritzker said he wants more teeth in the statewide mask ordinance because some local governments did not take it seriously as COVID numbers rose. During a recent stop in Bloomington, the governor said as long as businesses make a good-faith effort, the ordinance will not be punitive.

Gov. JB Pritzker standing while wearing a mask
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Gov. JB Pritzker stands while wearing a mask during a news conference at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA on Aug. 13.

“Nobody is asking a business owner or worker to confront that person and to have an argument with that person; we are simply asking you to make reasonable efforts. That includes putting a sign up that says, ‘No Mask, No Service,’” Pritzker said.

Pritzker argues tough mask enforcement helps businesses stay even because the ones who play by the rules can lose customers to businesses that don't. Any physical contact with a store employee who enforces a mask ordinance is now a felony.

What can a business do when someone refuses to wear a mask? Attorney Lorna Geiler recently told McLean County business owners they can ban anyone from their store for not wearing a mask as long as they offer a reasonable accommodation.

“If it’s a customer who wants to go down the aisles without a mask on, we can say ‘No, you simply can’t do that. Here’s the accommodation we can offer you. Give us your list,’” Geiler said.

Local mask ordinances 

The time might come when a business owner can report a mask violator. The McLean County Board of Health plans to talk to Bloomington and Normal city officials about creating a mask ordinance to fine anyone not wearing a mask in public.

Health board member Hannah Eisner said some may think it's unenforceable or heavy-handed or a money-grab for a city. She said it doesn't have to be any of those things. It can simply be another way to stress the value of protecting those around you.

“A lot of this is we trust that there is common sense application of this, by not having vigilantes out there to catch people there not wearing masks,” Eisner said. “It’s generally a complaint-driven system.”

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said he supports mask enforcement, but cautioned it doesn't work if one city does it and others don't.

“It is generally the type of thing that is better done on a regional, broader basis like at the state level,” Renner said. “That doesn’t mean I’d be opposed to it. It’s just I’d like to see what that might look like.”

Renner said his biggest concern is allowing a COVID resurgence that leads to another broad shutdown.

The most recent data from the state puts McLean County’s rate of new coronavirus cases in a warning area. The county on Monday set a seven-day record for new cases.

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