Illinois GOP Sues Gov. Pritzker Over Ban on Large Gatherings

June 19, 2020

(WTTW News) – With an historic election less than six months away, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider says the GOP is at a disadvantage due to the terms of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order.

The party is seeking to get restrictions — which currently include a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people (that number will increase to 50 in phase four of the state’s reopening plan) — lifted by taking Pritzker to court.

The Illinois Republican Party and three local Republican groups, represented by the Liberty Justice Center, filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday.

“This is the time when you see bus tours and rallies and phone banks and those other sort of grassroots gatherings of citizens that are at the core of how our democracy functions,” said an LJC attorney.

Pritzker’s latest executive order exempts religious organizations from the 10-person limitation; likewise, there have been no repercussions for defying the order despite swelling protests against police brutality.

“Political parties are for political expression what churches are for religious expression: the corporate manifestation of speech and interaction within a community of shared belief. Political parties’ events and rallies are also like protest rallies and marches,” the lawsuit reads. “Yet, unlike churches, political parties are barred from gathering in groups greater than 10 under the Governor’s Executive Order 2020-38. And unlike protestors against police brutality, they have not been given an exemption based on his sympathy, recognition, and participation.”

Throughout the pandemic, Republicans have been critical of Pritzker for not being more inclusive of the legislature in his handling of the coronavirus.

Schneider on Tuesday said that Pritzker is “ruling like an unaccountable king” and that the governor is guilty of “incandescent hypocrisy” by standing elbow-to-elbow at rallies and events since the killing of George Floyd on May 25.

“Not practicing social distancing. Meanwhile, his COVID-19 executive orders ban Illinois Republicans and other groups from gathering in groups larges than 10,” he said. “The Illinois Republican Party of Illinois  will not sit idly by while the governor of Illinois applies one rule for himself and his political allies and another rule for everyone else.”

Pritzker’s office points out that Republicans who demonstrated against Pritzker this spring by taking part in reopen rallies did not face legal repercussions.

“This is about scoring political points and criticizing civil rights protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement. “The courts have repeatedly upheld the Governor’s executive orders as based on public health guidance. And as the Republicans who attended protests against the public health guidance are well aware, the State has never prevented people from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Schneider himself took part in at least one such event in May.

“We recall large groups of Republicans freely gathering at the Capitol and in downtown Chicago to protest Governor Pritzker’s handling of how to reopen the state without legal ramifications,” Democratic Party of Illinois Director Mary Morrissey said in a statement. “This lawsuit is a distraction from the real issue — a Republican president who the IL GOP considers the ‘man of our time,’ but has let over a hundred thousand Americans die because of his inaction. We support Governor Pritzker and the exemplary leadership he’s shown throughout this public health crisis.”

Schneider said he believes in the rights of protestors and backs the cause of those riled by the “egregious” death of Floyd.

But his LJC attorney said Republicans and other Illinois residents should not have to live in fear of when the governor or law enforcement will choose to enforce the executive order or not.

“People should not have to risk going to jail to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said. “If people want to gather in a group larger than 10 they may get a free pass that day or they may be subject to police enforcement.”

Meanwhile, Illinois’ hotel industry is taking a more cordial tact as it seeks a reprieve from what Michael Jacobson, CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, described as the “rigid” reopening guidelines that will cap all gatherings at 50 people once the state reaches the fourth phase of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan.

The fifth and final phase of the plan, which lifts caps on how many people can be in one place at a given time, will not take effect until there is a coronavirus vaccine or treatment.

Such a prolonged wait would be troublesome for the hotel industry, considering that according to Jacobson, 50% of their business comes from large events.

“And so we could be in phase four for quite some time and what we’re seeing is business that’s on the books already through quarter three and quarter four of 2020 but even quarter one of 2021, we’re hearing meeting planners say ‘all the message we’re getting from the governor’s office is that we’re not going to be able to hold our events in Illinois so we need to cancel now,’” Jacobson said. “It’s really putting tens of millions of dollars of future business at risk.”

He says that could result in what were initially temporary furloughs turning into permanent layoffs.

“Many of the hotels that have suspended their operations will frankly just decide not to reopen and then we really become at risk for property defaults, when you look at things like their property taxes and their loans. Those are continuing to accrue when there’s zero revenue coming in,” he said.

The state and municipalities would take a hit should that happen, given government’s dependence on hotels paying taxes.

“Illinois is leading the nation with the largest decline of coronavirus cases and has proven following the science and advice of medical experts is working,” Pritzker’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “The administration is always willing to learn more about plans various industries have for reopening, but those plans need to fit within the framework of the Restore Illinois plan that has produced the most successful reopening in the country.”

Jacobson said he is in ongoing “constructive conversations” with the Pritzker administration about moving the cap to 50% occupancy for large ballrooms and event facilities that are typically capable of hosting thousands.

Such spaces are large enough that people can practice social distancing; he says hotels – and those who host conferences, events and weddings in them – have guest and registration list so contract tracing would be feasible should someone attend an event and later test positive for the coronavirus.