New mask mandate not a surprise with rising COVID-19 cases, McHenry County Board chairman says

Everyone age 2 and older will be required to wear a mask inside, regardless of vaccination status

The new statewide mask mandate for all residents age 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status, is drawing mixed reaction from McHenry County officials following Gov. JB Pritzker’s announcement Thursday.

Beginning Monday, masks will be required in all indoor settings. According to Pritzker’s executive order, masks can be taken off indoors when actively eating or drinking, or in offices when 6 feet of distance between people can be maintained, such as when an employee is in their private work space.

The order also recommends masking in crowded outdoor spaces for everyone when possibly in close contact with unvaccinated people.

Since the pandemic began and masks were first recommend and then mandated, people have expressed different views on masks, with some refusing to wear them. County Board member Michael Vijuk, D-Cary, said he doesn’t see that changing.

“My belief is that many will follow the mandates,” he said. “I believe some for medical or religious reasons will not follow the mandates, and that is understandable. Other individuals will not follow the mandates for other reasons that they feel justified in.”

County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, said the mask mandate was not a surprise.

“We’ve been expecting it as we’ve been watching the numbers increase over the last couple of weeks,” Buehler said.

The number of new cases in McHenry County was about 157 per 100,000 residents as of Saturday, the most recent day data is available for, according to the McHenry County Department of Health. That’s the highest it’s been since May.

After watching COVID-19 case numbers continue rise, Crystal Lake Mayor Haig Haleblian said the mask mandate is “a very small price for us to be able to continue to live our lives as normally as possible through through this pandemic.”

Those who want to enter Crystal Lake’s City Hall have have been required to wear masks for a couple of weeks now, Haleblian said. City Council members are masking up at meetings, too.

“We just expect people to be respectful of other other citizens and be conscious of what’s going on,” Haleblian said. “It’s an insidious disease. ... It’s affecting people.”

Not everyone is happy with new mandates, however.

“I’m disappointed that the governor is issuing edicts and mandates absent any legislative involvement,” Woodstock Mayor Mike Turner said. “The state’s original milestone for Phase 5 opening was a vaccine and treatment. We have effective versions of both of those.”

Buehler also echoed Turner’s concerns about the lack of legislative oversight on Pritzker’s executive orders.

“I think the Legislature should be involved at this point, and I think it’s time our Legislature starts to take control instead of one man,” he said, adding the governor’s office did not consult with the county about a new mask mandate.

County Board member Theresa Meshes, D-Fox River Grove, pushed back on the notion that Pritzker is issuing mandates without enough advice.

“I trust that Gov. Pritzker has been well advised by experts in the field of epidemiology, and that under their advisement, the mandate is occurring,” Meshes said. “The role of elected leaders is to gather information from experts, analyze what is the best public policy and then lead in following that policy.”

Turner said he was “very disappointed” not enough people have gotten vaccinated. The risk of infection for vaccinated people is low, he said, and while it is not possible to completely reduce all risk, mask mandates and COVID mitigations can have downsides.

Turner did not say if the mask mandate would be enforced in Woodstock.

Last year when Pritzker reverted the entire state into more restrictive mitigations that banned indoor service at restaurants as COVID-19 cases surged, Woodstock crafted its own set of rules that did not include the indoor dining ban but did limit the hours of alcohol service at bars and reduced dining room capacities for restaurants that allowed them to keep some indoor seating without interference from city police.

Three downtown Woodstock establishments – Niko’s Red Mill Tavern, Benton Street Tap and The Cabin – had their liquor licenses temporarily suspended in December by then Mayor Brian Sager for violating the earlier-than-normal last call for drinks.

During the last round of mitigations, nine McHenry County businesses, including two in Woodstock, were assessed $75 fines for not complying with the state’s mitigation measures, according to the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Buehler said enforcement of the mask mandate should continue to be left up to the McHenry County Department of Health. He said, however, that he thought their enforcement during the last mandate was “selective” toward small businesses and said large retail stores should have received enforcement action as well.

The McHenry County health department still was reviewing the guidance from the state before deciding how the mask mandate will be enforced, spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said Thursday.

McHenry County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the mask mandate through criminal law, sticking with its policy from the previous mandate, spokesman Deputy Kevin Byrnes said. Byrnes said the office does not have the capacity to enforce it but encourages residents to “voluntarily comply.”

In Algonquin, as was protocol last year, the governor’s mandates will be enforced by the Kane County and McHenry County health departments.

“We have followed CDC guidelines since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and we will continue to do so,” Algonquin Village President Debby Sosine said. “I think a lot of people are just honestly tired of all this, but they want to be safe and they want this to go away. And if wearing masks is going to help the issue, then put on masks and be done with it.”

Board member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, called on McHenry County residents to mask up to prevent hospitals from being overrun by COVID-19 patients. She said a friend went to the emergency room last week and reported back to her that it was filled with COVID-19 patients.

“We need to mask whether we’ve had the shots or not to protect ourselves or protect others,” Yensen said. “I’ve been masking to lead by example whenever I go out because I think I have a responsibility to myself, my family and to the community at large.”

About 15% of ICU beds in McHenry and Lake counties were available, a pandemic low, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported Thursday. The county also added six new COVID-19 patients to area hospitals Wednesday, bringing the total to 114.

As of Thursday, McHenry County had 5.4% of medical and surgical beds available, below the 20% goal, according to the McHenry County health department. However, 31.3% of the county’s ICU beds remained available.

Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said rising COVID-19 cases, especially among the unvaccinated, along with reduced hospital capacity necessitate the new mandates.

“Wearing a mask continues to be one of the simplest, cheapest ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 – and there is robust scientific evidence that widespread use of masks, including the non-medical masks, do in fact prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Ezike said Thursday.

County Board member Tanya Jindrich, D-Crystal Lake, said those opposed to mask mandates need to view the issue with a different perspective.

“I urge them to speak with the heroic health care professionals who will share their tragic stories of preventable COVID deaths,” she said.

Some residents still are concerned not enough people are wearing masks, however. Yensen said she has heard from constituents who are concerned about the lack of mask-wearing in businesses since cases have been rising in the county.

“I think we need to be very consistent and the public health department needs to take a lead,” she said.

Northwest Herald reporters Cassie Buchman and Sam Lounsberry contributed to this report.

Ben Szalinski

Ben Szalinski

Ben reports on local news in Harvard, Marengo, Huntley and Lake in the Hills along with the McHenry County Board. He graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield Public Affairs Reporting program in 2021. Ben is originally from Mundelein and enjoys outdoor activities and spending time with friends and family.