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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

In Clinton, Businesses Challenge Closure Order

JB Pritzker closeup
Rex Arbogast
A dozen Clinton business owners have put local law enforcement and public health authorities on notice they intend to open their doors to the public within a week, despite Gov. JB Pritzker’s order that non-essential services in the state remain closed.";

A dozen Clinton business owners have put local law enforcement and public health authorities on notice they intend to open their doors to the public within a week, despite Gov. JB Pritzker’s order that non-essential services in the state remain closed.

Clinton lawyer Kevin Hammer, who is part owner of Hammer Strength and Fitness, said Monday the small business owners believe it’s time for Illinois companies to reopen their doors after more than two months of closure due to the coronavirus that, so far, has killed more than 90,000 people in the United States.

“It’s our belief that executive orders do not carry the weight of law or statute and the governor is not following his own protocol laid out in public health rules,” said Hammer.

In a letter last week to Clinton Police Chief Ben Lowers, DeWitt County’s State’s Attorney Dan Markwell, Sheriff Mike Walker and DeWitt-Piatt Bi-County Health Department Administrator Dave Remmert, Hammer said his clients would soon be reopening their businesses.

In addition to Hammer’s fitness center, the list of businesses includes a DeWitt bar and three others in Clinton, two hair salons, a barber and a car dealer. Hammer’s clients also include a hotel, a dentist and a mechanical company whose services appear to be exempt from the executive order.

Several businesses opened Friday and others will be doing in the coming days, said Hammer.

Jerry Foehrer, manager of The Country Store in DeWitt, hopes to fully open by May 25. Three weeks of curbside service have helped pay a couple employees, but the bar is still far short of the revenue normally realized this time of year as boaters and campers flock to nearby Clinton Lake.

“We’ve lost a lot of money over this,” said Foehrer.

Disparities between which businesses are allowed to remain open and those forced to close creates a potential violation of due process rights, said Hammer.

Business owners are aware of the risks that come with opening their doors, said Hammer.

State and local business and health department licenses may be at stake for some shops. Insurance companies also have cautioned that defiance of state lockdown rules could interfere with coverage of claims during the pandemic.

Pritzker’s rule issued Friday that adds the threat of a misdemeanor charge for those who violate the state order will not deter owners, said Hammer.

“We are ready to defend these lawsuits,” he said.

The new rule will remain in place for 150 days, if a bipartisan oversight committee fails to take action to reject the mandate. The committee is set to review the rule Wednesday.

Reaction From Law Enforcement

DeWitt County State’s Attorney Dan Markwell said Monday his office will review alleged violations “on a case-by-case basis” to determine if charges should be filed.

Clinton Police Chief Ben Lowers said his officers “will continue to attempt to gain voluntary compliance from business owners and forward reports to the state’s attorney’s office for review.”

Clinton police also will consult with the Illinois State Police “because they are the ones who work with state licensing bodies,” said Lowers.

Prior to the issuance of Pritzker’s latest rule, several law enforcement officials and prosecutors in Illinois said they would not arrest or charge those who defied the order.

In a statement last week, the DeWitt County sheriff concurred with that interpretation of the law, but cautioned residents that store owners have a right to set the rules for shoppers, including mandatory masks. Refusal to comply with a store’s conditions or deliberately putting another’s health at risk could result in an arrest, said Walker.

The health department will coordinate its response to the intended business openings with Markwell’s office, said Remmert. Health departments are navigating the same legal issues raised by law enforcement and police officials, he said.

“This is new to everybody. We’re all trying to work through this,” said Remmert.

Clear to everyone is the financial hardship the two months of closures have caused small business owners.

“Everybody wants to reopen. This should be our busy time,but we’re closed. The bills are still coming,” said the manager of the DeWitt bar.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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