Anger over COVID-19 mask mandates boiled over in the Illinois House on Thursday with lawmakers voting to kick out nine Republicans for refusing to wear face coverings — prompting Republican accusations of “hypocrisy” and Democratic dismissal of a GOP “clown show.”
“Let’s just take down the temperature a little bit, OK?” asked House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, shortly before the nine members of his caucus were given the boot.
The Western Springs Republican has abided by the House mask rule to be masked when not addressing the chamber and other COVID-19 mitigations, but he voted against expelling his nine maskless caucus members after making a plea for “civility.”
“And if the motion is going to be pursued, let’s see how the vote goes, and we’ll accept the consequences of it,” Durkin said. “But my final thought is, let’s just take the temperature down a little bit guys.”
Temperatures were indeed taken of all members the day before when Republicans objected that the Democrats were arbitrarily deciding what coronavirus mitigation rules to follow. That prompted a delay in the debate while a staffer went through the chamber with a forehead thermometer.
But the disagreement reached a fever pitch on Thursday, with Republicans accusing the Democrats of knuckling under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “tyrannical rule” and insisting on masks in the chamber while not wearing them at fundraisers or other political events.
“Hypocrisy is no longer defined by Webster’s dictionary,” state Rep. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, said before he was voted off the floor. “Hypocrisy is known as the Democrat Party in the state of Illinois.”
The argument over the chambers’ safety protocols was playing out over a larger debate over Pritzker’s handling of the pandemic, including his mask mandate for schools and his use of executive orders to enact mitigations.
“The time to end the mandates is now,” state Rep. Joe Sosnowski of Rockford said before he was voted out of the chamber. “We look at the statistics, and unfortunately, shutdowns, lockdowns, masks, mandates have had very little effect on the virus.”
In addition to Sosnowski and Chesney, Republican House members given the boot were Tony McCombie of Savanna, Blaine Wilhour of Beecher, Brad Halbrook of Shelbyville, Adam Niemerg of Dieterich, David Welter of Morris, David Friess of Red Bud and Chris Miller of Oakland.
State Rep. Lakesia Collins, D-Chicago, called for the unmasked nine to be removed, arguing they were in violation of House rules. Collins brought a similar motion to the floor on Wednesday after several Republicans entered the chamber that day without face coverings.
“Will the sponsor yield?” Wilhour asked after Collins singled him and others out on Thursday. “No, she wants to kick us outta here. I think she should yield for some questioning. Will you yield?”
“Oh, come on. Come on. I’m a sitting state representative, and you want to kick me out of this body, but you won’t confront me personally? And you won’t have a dialogue with me about this? That’s pretty weak.”
“It’s time that we set an example that sanity — sanity is going to make a return here in the state of Illinois in Springfield,” the Beecher Republican said. “We lived under two years of tyrannical rule for one person, and now we want to kick people out of here because this body, this body that we’re in right now, has not been tough enough to do their job for the last two years.
“We haven’t been tough enough to stand up to a governor. We haven’t been tough enough to stand up to a bureaucracy that is completely out of control.”
But Collins fired back, “This body is doing everything that we can on this side of the aisle to make sure that the people’s work is being done, while you all on that side of the aisle have been making this body, this chamber, a clown show.
“And so, if you choose not to wear your masks do that outside of the chamber. But while we’re in here I ask that you respect the chambers’ rules. Wear your mask. Get the work done.”
After a short, heated debate, the House voted 66 to 39 largely along party lines to remove the non-compliant Republicans. Only one Democrat voted against the ouster of the maskless Republicans.
A majority of the GOP caucus followed the maskless members out, except for McCombie, who refused to leave the chamber despite being named in the motion.
House guards were given a list of the removed members and told not to allow them back onto the House floor without a mask. The ejected lawmakers were told they can participate remotely.
Durkin argued that the GOP opposition is rooted in bigger issues.
“I think it’s a legitimate question to ask that why can’t we at least have a full hearing in front of one of our committees about mitigation efforts? We’ve been asking for it for two years,” Durkin said on the floor prior to the vote. “What you see over here is a growing frustration that is playing out all over the state of Illinois.”
Republicans moved to caucus for an hour following the vote.
Welter, who was removed for not wearing a mask, returned to the House floor following the break, this time with a face covering.
“I put the mask back on to comply and came back to do the people’s business,” Welter said. “I was not going to let this statement and demonstration negatively impact the constituents I represent.”
Welter said the statement was to push back against the mask mandate following an ongoing court case that placed a temporary restraining order on dozens of schools and the rejection of COVID-19 mitigation protocols in schools by a bipartisan legislative committee earlier this week.
“Hopefully this sends a little bit of a message that people are done with it,” he said.
State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, who advocated for masks to be worn early on in the pandemic, said despite different views on masks among House Republicans, the caucus agrees public hearings should be held regarding COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
But a spokesperson for Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch slammed the Republicans for pointless theatrics.
“It’s disappointing that instead of doing the work they were elected to do, Republicans would rather use the House chamber as a stage for political theatre,” spokesperson Jaclyn Driscoll said in a statement.