'Unmasked' rally defies school virus rule, Pritzker critique

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Just weeks away from the ringing of the schoolhouse bell, scores of people rallied at the state Capitol Saturday against the state's requirement that schoolchildren must wear face coverings this fall to discourage transmission of the highly contagious and potentially deadly coronavirus.

In a state where the numbers of cases of COVID-19 are rising, if not as quickly as they are surging in several other states, the protestors took aim at Gov. J.B. Pritzker's broadside this week that people who forego face coverings are “the enemy.”

“I don’t think all this pressure needs to be put on the kids,” said Adam Dunn of Decatur, whose kids are out of school. “They need freedom to go play, have a childhood.”

The “Million Unmasked March,” which took its name from the social-justice march a quarter-century ago, drew about 250 people, including a stalwart group of counter-demonstrators who periodically let loose their own shouted protests from across the street.

It came a day after Pritzker put four of Illinois' 102 counties on “warning level” status for dangerously increased numbers of COVID-19, which officials traced to “risky behavior” such as large gatherings and out-of-state travel.

Saturday, officials announced 1,426 newly confirmed cases of the illness, with 12 new deaths. COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, has now contributed to 7,397 deaths among 169,883 cases, although many of those infected have recovered.

The rally touched on the rights of “citizen-children," questioned the severity of COVID-19 in youngsters and their ability to pass it on, and raised the impracticality of expecting young kids to attend a full day of school without touching, fidgeting with, or even trading masks.

But it was Pritzker's provocative denunciation this week of doffing face coverings as a political statement that set off the crowd. The Democrat said, “The enemy is not the mask. If you’re not wearing a mask in public, you’re endangering everyone around you, so the enemy is you.”

Evan Freytag of Hillsboro stood with his wife, Alicia, holding a sign segmented to display COVID-19 conspiracy theories, surrounding the scrawled message, “This has become an ‘Idiocracy.’ No more Tyranny!”

There's consensus among federal and state officials that face coverings minimize the chance that infected droplets can be transmitted from one person to another, prompting them to make masks a central requirement for students, teachers and school staff. Several at the rally doubted those conclusions — Freytag called it all “scare tactics.”

Pritzker and educational administrators in June released safety guidelines for pupils to return to school. McKayla Tatum and her 14-year-old daughter Hannah, who drove 2 ½ hours from Channahon, said their schools are giving students he option of continuing remote learning or reporting to home room.

Hannah Tatum, a freshman, wants to go to school -- sans mask. She says she finds it hard to breathe in them, creating a distraction, but there’s an emotional aspect as well.

“It will make people more depressed because you can’t see people’s smiles,” Hannah said. “Seeing someone smile makes someone else’s day.”

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Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor


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