SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois General Assembly convened in Springfield Wednesday for the first time in 10 weeks, with desks spaced apart and most members wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with hopes of completing a spring session's worth of work in three days.
The Legislature has canceled all its scheduled meetings since early March because of health guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic to keep at least 6 feet of space between two people, which is nearly impossible in the close quarters of the Capitol. Their return occurred along with extraordinary safety measures and a disagreement over them that led to a GOP lawmaker being removed from the House floor.
The House, with its 118 members, abandoned the Capitol chamber for the Bank of Springfield Convention Center six blocks away. Tables were spread across the vast floor to allow for social distancing, and everyone entering either the convention center or the Capitol had to undergo a body temperature check and wear a face covering to limit the chances of spreading the virus.
State Rep. Jim Durkin, the House GOP leader, called on members to approve and follow an emergency House rule requiring members to wear masks, saying it's important to protect members' families, as well as each other and legislative and convention center staff.
“The bottom line is we have to put them before ourselves,” Durkin said before lawmakers approved the rule on a 97-12 vote.
Among the “no” votes was state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who filed a legal challenge to Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker's stay-at-home order. Moments later he was escorted off the floor after saying he would not wear a mask, in violation of the new rule. He walked out without incident.
Lawmakers, whose scheduled adjournment date is May 31, must approve a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that may be one of the more challenging budgets in Illinois history. The pandemic, which has closed non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay at home, has ripped a $7 billion deficit in the current and next year's spending plan.
Pritzker and Democrats who control both houses want plans developed to provide financial relief to families and small businesses decimated by the coronavirus. But that will depend on an undetermined amount of federal aid coming to the state.
The 59-member Senate is meeting in its chamber, but not all at once. Observers will likely see a procession of people in and out with one senator presenting legislation, one speaker to rise in support or opposition of it, and small groups coming in together to vote.
Pritzker's stay-at-home order has been in place since March 21 and, under pressure to provide a roadmap to taxpayers eager to return to a former way of life, this month he produced a five-phase “Restore Illinois” plan. Pritzker has signaled that when his current stay-at-home order expires May 30, the state will move into the plan's third stage, which allows for the reopening of manufacturing and retail and allows small groups to congregate.