By E.A. Gjelten
We’ve all seen the news: irate anti-maskers punching, shoving, or spitting on store employees or bus drivers who were trying to get them to cooperate with rules intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Of course, it’s already a crime in most states to do anything like this (or to attack anyone else, for that matter). Still, unless the worker is seriously injured as a result, it’s usually only a misdemeanor. But not in Illinois, thanks to a new law that makes it a felony to “batter” a worker who is trying to enforce face-covering rules.
Illinois law defines simple battery—a misdemeanor—as deliberately hurting someone physically or making any physical contact that’s either insulting or provoking. (As Illinois courts have long interpreted the law, deliberately spitting on someone counts as physical contact.) The same conduct is considered aggravated battery—a felony—under certain circumstances, including when the victim belongs to a protected category.
Now, under the amended law (at 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/12-3.05), those protected victims in Illinois include retail workers who, during a public health emergency or disaster, are relaying:
- health and safety directions from the store, or
- any rules, regulations, guidelines, or recommendations from a federal, state, or local public health agency.
Relevant rules and recommendations would include the CDC’s recommendation for wearing face masks in public settings, as well as the Illinois Department of Public Health guideline requiring face coverings in public when you can’t keep six feet apart from others, such as when shopping in stores, at curbside pickups, or on public transportation. The only exceptions are for children under the age of two and people who can’t tolerate masks for medical reasons.
It’s worth pointing out that, while the new amendment to the Illinois law refers only to merchants (employees or owners of retail stores), that law already included on-duty transit operators among the protected victims. So attacking bus drivers who are enforcing mask rules would also be felony aggravated battery.
While these unfortunate incidents continue across the country, it will be interesting to see if other states follow the Illinois legislature’s lead. As much as some people believe that refusing to wear a face mask is a badge of personal freedom rather than a public health risk, they might think twice before shoving or spitting on a store employee if they know the behavior could lead to prison—where they could come down with COVID-19.