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McHenry County Republicans criticized for meet-and-greet without face masks

Networking event draws allegations of COVID-19 safety violations

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, D-Marengo, called out local Republican leaders Monday for not wearing masks at an event last week, the latest dust-up around mask wearing.

The criticism being leveled is politically motivated, said County Board member Jim Kearns, R-Huntley, who attended the event. He said everyone there remained conscious of their proximity to one another, even if they chose not to wear masks.

The question of whether the event Wednesday evening violated COVID-19 safety protocols lies in a bit of a “gray area,” said McHenry County Department of Public Health spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli, noting she had seen only a few photos of the event.

“We don’t necessarily want to prevent people from coming together and doing what they feel like is a First Amendment right, but it’s certainly important for people to consider the risk when they’re engaging in these types of events,” Salvatelli said Monday.

“We would hope everybody understands that one of the simplest things that we can do to stay safe is to socially distance and wear a mask.”

Last Wednesday’s event was a meet-and-greet with candidates hosted by the McHenry County Republican Party, according to the event page posted to Facebook. The photos of local leaders – including multiple County Board members and Jim Oberweis, who is running in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District – conversing in a crowded room without face coverings contradicts the messaging put out by county government on the importance of wearing a mask, Franks said in an interview Monday.

“Our message has been one of social distancing and masking but instead this leadership – and many of them the highest levels of our elected officials – have gone exactly against what we’ve been using taxpayer resources to put out there,” Franks said.

Event attendees did not exceed the 50-person capacity limit and the lack of social distancing was not any worse than most of the bars and restaurants in the area, Kearns said.

“The public is being duped here because it’s widespread, there’s widespread noncompliance on that, and it’s people’s choice if they want to wear a mask or not at an event like that,” Kearns said.

“You do try to stay away from everybody, trying to social distance and it’s kind of hard to do in some cases, but it’s just something that, you know, we got to get back to some type of practical life here,” he said.

Photos of the event showed about 40 people standing closely in a portion of Rush Creek Distillery in Harvard where the event was held. Of the people whose faces are visible in one photo, only one person was wearing a mask and the attendees are standing in small groups gathered throughout the space.

Rush Creek Distillery has a policy of social distancing, a capacity limit of 50 people and asks patrons to wear masks when they are unable to maintain a distance of 6 feet from one another, said two of the company’s founders, Mark and Todd Stricker.

The McHenry County GOP meet-and-greet was a private event booked in their space for upward of 45 people, Todd Stricker said. He said he felt that social distancing guidelines were more or less adhered to, although perhaps a bit less strictly than is typical of their establishment.

Upon request, the health department offers guidance to event planners on how to hold events of less than 50 people in a safe manner, Salvatelli said.

According to safety guidelines published by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, bars should space their tables and chairs 6 feet apart to maintain proper social distancing between patrons of unrelated parties.

When in a situation where 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained – such as a networking event – people are advised to wear a face covering to reduce the risk of infection, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In general, the health department encourages all county residents to do their part in wearing a mask when they are unable to socially distance, she said.

“It certainly counters the message that public health is sending out,” Salvatelli said. “I believe that there are people out there who sincerely ... believe in doing what’s right and I think that that’s important and I don’t really think that those particular decisions should be persuaded over whether a leader is doing something or not.”

Franks said he is frustrated by the disregard for COVID-19 safety guidelines that he feels has become common among local Republican elected officials. He said he felt that local Republican leaders were sending the wrong message to their constituents about how seriously they are taking the pandemic.

“What are these people thinking? They obviously don’t care about the health and well-being of the people they represent,” he said. “These people, who are elected or want to be elected, are an absolute embarrassment.”

Kearns said it is not always “socially appropriate” to wear a mask, especially at networking events, but he almost always keeps one tucked in his pocket.

“We have a Constitution and we have people’s freedom of choice, and I am not going to force someone else to [wear a mask],” he said.

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