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Sangamon Health Board Urges Enforcement Of New Bar, Restaurant Rules

A COVID-19 testing site outside of Sangamon County Health Department.
A COVID-19 testing site outside of Sangamon County Health Department.

Just hours after Gov. JB Pritzker announced new COVID-19 restrictions for west-central Illinois on Thursday, the Sangamon County Health Board passed a resolution supporting local law enforcement agencies in enforcing the ban on indoor dining and bar service.

The rules are meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 after the region saw an 8% positivity rate average in new tests for three straight days — the trigger point for mitigations laid out by the state in July. Bars and restaurants will have to close at 11 p.m. and require reservations for all parties. The new rules take effect Sunday.

“I guarantee you the public will not take it seriously until there is enforcement,” said Bob Wesley, one the seven members of the board that oversees the health department. He proposed the resolution at the regularly scheduled board meeting held by conference call Thursday.

Springfield Ald. Doris Turner – who serves as the city’s representative to the health board – said politics and a push to please business owners are getting in the way of public health officials doing their job.

“That's not our job to make sure that everybody is feeling good. Our job is to protect the health of the people in Sangamon County,” she said. “I feel like at this point, we are not doing that.”

Turner said she’d heard rumors the county wasn’t planning on enforcing the restrictions.

Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder told The State Journal-Register Thursday he doesn’t plan to enforce the rules this weekend.

Sangamon County Department of Public Health Director Gail O’Neill said she’s working on an enforcement plan with the state’s attorney's office, sheriff and local police departments, but didn’t give a timeline for when it’d be ready.

“The first time we went through this, we found that it was very hard to enforce the legal side,” O’Neill said of previous rules put in place by the governor.

She said after the city of Springfield and Sangamon County approved masking and distancing rules similar to the state’s at the end of the summer, the health department issued tickets for violations. A similar approach is being considered now, she said.

O’Neill said the contact tracing data the department has collected so far doesn’t show there has been an outbreak related to any restaurants in Sangamon County, which could be important as they try to get businesses to comply. However, she described an outbreak at a bar outside of Springfield in October that was forced to close for several days.

“There's all those things we're trying to look at because we are anticipating lawsuits being filed,” O’Neill said. “We understand that the public health is at risk. So is the risk to businesses. We're trying to balance that a little bit.”

Board chair Dr. Brian Miller and the five other members attending the conference call meeting voted in favor of the resolution.

Prior to the vote, local Republican lawmakers held a news conference Thursday afternoon criticizing Pritzker’s rules.

“We’re going to see a lot of people that don’t come back…who close up shop and don’t come back being a business anymore,” said state Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield).

Butler contends Pritzker has focused solely on the health crisis created by COVID-19, but has not paid enough attention to the accompanying economic damage in both the short- and long-term.

The health board meets again on November 19.

Sean Crawford contributed to this reporting.

Correction: Bob Wesley is a member of the Sangamon County Health Board. A previous version incorrecty identified him as a physician. 

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