Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is among the chief criticisms lobbed by the Republicans engaged in a divisive primary battle that will decide who will take on the Democrat come November.
One of the leading candidates, state Sen. Darren Bailey, has made a name for himself fighting Pritzker’s executive orders requiring masks in places like theaters, stores and schools.
His campaign said Bailey’s stance on masking has been “consistent” despite a policy at his family business that could be viewed as contradictory to his public anti-masking message. According to federal documents, face coverings are required for certain workers at the Bailey Family Farm, of which he is registered as a trustee.
In May 2020, when state legislators met in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic, Bailey refused to abide by Illinois House rules that required anyone in the chambers — moved temporarily to a Springfield convention hall for social distancing purposes — to don a mask.
His colleagues voted to remove him from the proceedings, and Bailey was walked out by security.
A grassroots group held a “Reopen Illinois” rally that day; some attendees carried “Bailey for Governor” signs.
At the time, Bailey said he was focused on his job as a lawmaker, not running for statewide office.
Political scientist Chris Mooney says it was a politically-savvy move.
“It’s not like they’re gonna hog tie him and throw him down on the ground,” Mooney said. “But it was noted, you guys in the press noted it. Suddenly he gets a little pop. Fits in with the base that he’s trying to appeal to.”
Bailey has since worn his mask without issue in the capitol, as was usually required over the past two years.
Monday night at a GOP candidates’ forum in Washington, Illinois, Bailey boasted about his 2020 mask protest.
“I was the only person that stood up and escorted out of the General Assembly. I’ve been standing up and pushing back and trying to educate parents from day one to take back your schools. When we allow government to get out of control, we lose our freedoms,” Bailey said, to applause from the crowd.
Bailey has been party to lawsuits seeking to strike down COVID mandates, and has often railed against the statewide nature of masking and closure orders.
“I understand and acknowledge that things are much different in Chicago. I get that because there’s a lot more people up in the northern part of the state,” Bailey said in July 2020. “But when you live down here in southeast Illinois like I do, and you see this — you don’t see much happening but yet you see businesses failing, you get called consistently from hospitals who are hurting and laying people off, and then you realize something’s wrong and we need to treat thing a little bit differently in different parts of the state.”
At the time, hospitals and “non-essential” businesses were emerging from a period in which they’d been ordered by the governor and state department of public health to, respectively, delay non-necessary surgeries and close their doors as part of a COVID containment strategy.
Despite Bailey’s walkout, lawsuits, and campaign rhetoric, masks have been required for stretches during the pandemic in a downstate area he represents.
Specifically, per documents on file with the federal government, face coverings are required for certain workers at the Bailey Family Farm, where according to Bailey’s campaign website, he grew up.
“Darren was born and raised in Louisville and is a proud third-generation farmer. Growing up on Bailey Family Farm, Darren learned at a young age what it means to work hard and earn an honest living. Today, Darren and his sons own and operate Bailey Family Farm,” his biography reads.
Bailey is registered with the state of Illinois as trustee of Bailey Family Grain, headquartered in Xenia.
When farms bring on seasonal workers via the federal H-2A Temporary Agricultural Employment of Foreign Workers program, like to aide with a labor-intensive harvest, they have to file employment conditions forms with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Bailey farm has postings up for jobs that run from early April through June and pay $15.89 an hour.
Those hired will run agricultural equipment, and help in the corn and soybean fields.
The job order, signed by Bailey’s son Zach, specifically states that the Bailey Family Farm will follow Centers for Disease Control, state and local health requirements and that the employer may implement its own additional safety measures.
Employees must “wear a face covering that covers your nose and mouth, always, unless you have received specific instruction otherwise. Stay at least 6 feet away from all other people, always. If a 6-foot distance cannot be maintained, a mask must be worn, even if you are otherwise exempted from that requirement” the form states in a final addendum.
The Baileys use similar language in relation to COVID precautions and masking in a job order that led to the farm hiring migrant workers in the spring and summer of ‘21.
No such requirements are listed in a job order on the Department of Labor website seeking hires for the 2020 season.
The Bailey farm was under no apparent legal obligation to take such strict measures. Other Illinois farms, including another in Xenia, do not list COVID safety requirements.
A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Labor pointed out that the federal government has issued extensive guidelines on COVID and worker safety, but that “to the extent there are COVID protocols listed in agricultural clearance orders, they are either voluntary protocols put in place by the employer in response to guidelines or they are necessary to comply with state or local health and safety requirements.”
Including COVID precautions is rational from a business perspective, says political scientist Mooney.
“He’s a businessperson, he looks at the situation in factual terms. He knows that if he brings a lot of agricultural workers into his mega business that he’s got – really it’s more of a plantation than a farm; he’s among many farmers downstate who just have thousands and thousands of acres,” Mooney said. “So he knows that his business will be hit if workers get sick and they infect each other, and you know agriculture’s typically a timely – things have to be done at a certain time or there’s a problem – so it’s absolutely legitimate, it’s legal.”
But Mooney says in the case of a Republican primary, it’s not about rationale, it’s about symbolism.
Bailey has long maintained that businesses can and should be able to do what they want; his fight is against interference from government, and Pritzker whom he has said acted like a “dictator” and “king” by issuing executive orders rather than working with lawmakers.
“A business can still recommend, mandate, that you wear a mask if you’re going to enter their property, you have to wear a mask if you go on their property. That’s their right,” Bailey said in his July 3, 2020 Facebook Live video from.
The distinction between private business COVID choices and government mandates is valid, Mooney said. Still, the Bailey farm’s federal filings give GOP gubernatorial opponents Richard Irvin, Gary Rabine, Paul Schimpf and Jesse Sullivan an opening to accuse Bailey of being hypocritical.
“The Republican primary for the governorship right now is a battle between who can be the most Trumpy. Who can be the most like Donald Trump. And so this is what he (Bailey) is doing: Donald Trump eschewed masks,” Mooney said. “There is a good constituency for that in the Republican Party primary electorate.”
Bailey is scheduled to meet this week with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, the Bailey campaign confirmed on Tuesday.
Bailey spokesman Joe DeBose said in an emailed statement that before COVID, the Bailey Family
“had always supplied N95 masks and more to those who needed them for farm work.”
“Senator Bailey’s stance is very consistent as he has always stood against tyrannical government mandates and for the rights of businesses and individuals to make good decisions for themselves,” DeBose wrote in the statement.
The campaign also says it “should come as no surprise” that the jobs are to do farm work, therefore the work is “is done outside.”
“They farm over 12,000 acres, so social distancing comes naturally. The H2A is a federal program that legally brings migrant workers, and they’re required to abide by federal rules and make available to workers whatever they need,” the statement said. “The Bailey Family Farm employs several local families and continues to advertise jobs locally to fill positions, but no one wants to work.”
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky