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Freeburg leaders cry foul after St. Clair County emergency management director filmed without mask at wrestling events

Herb Simmons can be seen at two wrestling events in Tennessee without a mask. In the videos, he is surrounded by wrestlers with a crowd seated outside the ring

ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Ill. — Herb Simmons is nearly synonymous with mask-wearing messages in St. Clair County.

As the Director of the Emergency Management Agency, he frequently pleads with residents to practice social distancing, wear masks and wash their hands so businesses can get back up and running during the pandemic.

Some say he even blames those who don’t follow those guidelines for the governor’s mandatory shutdowns having to take effect.

But videos of Simmons unmasked, standing shoulder to shoulder — and sometimes even closer — with wrestlers as the commissioner of crowded events in Tennessee have some local leaders questioning whether Simmons is sincere in his messaging or part of the problem.

In Freeburg, not far from Belleville, the four main restaurants are struggling to stay afloat in the village of about 4,500 people, said Village Administrator Tony Funderburg.

Funderburg said He finds Simmons’ Facebook messages imploring residents to wear masks demeaning, and now, hypocritical.

“When I first saw it, I’m like, ‘There’s no way this guy can do this job, there’s just no way,’” said Funderburg of the wrestling videos. “He’s the guy that’s telling us how to live our lives and what to do on a daily basis and he is not following that.

“It’s hard for me to have any respect for him at this point.”

Simmons did not respond to multiple phone calls, texts and emails from 5 On Your Side.

Neither did St. Clair County Health Director Barbara Hohlt.

St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern is often side-by-side with Simmons in his messages to St. Clair County residents. He questioned the motives of those who would criticize Simmons.

“Mr. Simmons wears a mask and practices social distancing,” Kern said. “He does everything he’s supposed to do. 

"And when he went to Tennessee, he was on a TV show there very briefly, and, for the purposes of being on TV, did not have a mask on, but did not go against any of the recommendations he asks others to follow.”

Kern said he did not see the videos in question.

He added: “I support Mr. Simmons. I know he follows the guidelines. I’m with him may hours of the day and he’s a great advocate for wearing masks.”

Kern said Simmons has worked hard throughout the pandemic to keep county residents safe.

“I see all the good that Mr. Simmons has done and I question the motives of those who would criticize someone who has worked so hard for last 227 days on the COVID response and Mr. Simmons is certainly responsible and I’m sure he has followed by the rules. His whole body of work is something to look at in total. Mr. Simmons has been a stellar public official during this entire time.”

Sheila Gallagher is among those questioning Simmons’ actions. She’s the president of the Freeburg Chamber of Commerce.

“We wear our masks, we do what we’re supposed to be doing and for him being a leader, a director, he should be practicing what he preaches,” she said. “You should be wearing a mask and doing social distancing and all that, too.”

In one of the videos in question, dated Oct. 17, Simmons can be seen standing outside an empty ring surrounded by a crowd, unmasked and taking away a championship belt from a pair of wrestlers after one of them was injured. Other wrestlers eager to get the belt away from him crowd around him as he announces there will have to be another tournament to determine the rightful winner. At one point, about eight men can be seen within the frame as they shout at him and each other.

In another video, dated Oct. 24, Simmons starts to promote the Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling organization he founded in 1975, according to its website. A crowd can be seen in the distance surrounding the empty ring where he is talking.

“SICW is coming back, it’s been a long absentee as you know the COVID 19 has just shut us down…” he said.

He’s then cut off by a wrestler who shouts something at him and appears to start hitting him as he hunches over the empty ring and tries to cover his head. Other wrestlers soon join in. Some pull the wrestler away from Simmons and continue tussling. 

The show then cuts to a commercial break, and a wrestler who helped stop the others from ganging up on Simmons tells the announcer: 

“Nobody messes with Herb Simmons.”

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