Town, Health Officials Reject Nord's COVID 'Protest' Exemption
Normal Town Council member Stan Nord objects so much to ordinances imposing fines for large gatherings during the pandemic that he is offering a way that he says will get around them.
Town and health officials say he is wrong.
Nord was the only council member who voted against the town's recent emergency orders that limit parties and gatherings near campus to 10 or fewer people and require social distancing and masks.
The council also banned bars and restaurants from serving patrons unless they are seated. Violators could face fines up to $750. Nord voted against the emergency ordinances because he said the McLean County Health Department should make the call on such restrictions, not the town.
Nord went on Facebook and offered a way around it.
“A protest is OK,” Nord said in a post following the Sept 2 council meeting. “So as long as you have a party and let’s call it the Koos Party Penalty Protest, if you have one of those at your house, then that’s not subject to this ordinance.”
"Koos" is a reference to Normal Mayor Chris Koos, who issued the orders the council later adopted. Koos said Nord's post proves he isn't interested in working with other council members on any issue.
“He’s certainly entitled to have that (opinion), but to work against his own council on something that is now law in the town of Normal, I don’t feel is appropriate for him at all,” Koos said. “He can continue to talk about it, but he shouldn’t encourage people to try to break the ordinance.”
But does Nord have a point that protests are exempt?
Racial justice protests have been going on for months in Bloomington-Normal and all over the country at a time when public health officials were urging people to stay inside to limit the spread of COVID-19.
WGLT asked the town's legal department for an answer. The town responded that, no, protests are not exempt.
“Calling a large gathering in a residence a protest does not exempt the gathering from the restrictions in the ordinance,” said Cathy Oloffson, the town's director of communications and community relations. “The town of Normal values free speech and we’ve seen participants at recent demonstrations following appropriate safety precautions. We hope that continues.”
Oloffson said the gathering ordinances are intended to be content-neutral.
“The ordinances apply to apartment complexes throughout the Town of Normal and other residential units in and around the campus area. It wouldn’t generally apply to areas where you would have protests or demonstrations,” Oloffson said.
She added the town is working with local apartment complex owners and ISU to be proactive in preventing large-scale gatherings from occurring -- though the recent flash mobs that YouTube pranksters the NELK boys created on campus show how hard that can be.
WGLT also asked McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight whether it would be OK if someone reported for violating the ordinance said the gathering was a protest. She, too, said protests are not exempt.
“We are not aware of any specific distinction in the law, statutes or ordinances for protests, though we continue to evaluate that,” McKnight said. “It’s a question of enforcement. We will continue to investigate.”
So far, the county has not issued fines or other penalties against anyone who violates protocols. County leaders say they prefer education over enforcement.
McKnight acknowledged any event with large groups of people in close quarters can be a problem.
“There’s always an elevated risk in large gatherings, and we ask everybody to avoid large gatherings and practice social distancing, wear their face coverings. Those are all tools that ... help us keep ourselves safe.”
The health department has said there are no known coronavirus cases linked to the many racial justice protests that took place in Bloomington-Normal over the summer.
When told how the town and health department responded to the exempt question, Nord replied, “I’m glad the health department is looking into this health issue.”
When asked if he feels any obligation to abide by the law since it passed, Nord did not respond.
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