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

Renner: City To Investigate 'Totally Irresponsible' COVID Rule-Breakers

Tari Renner
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner also is the city's liquor commissioner.

The City of Bloomington is gathering evidence to use against businesses that have defied the state's COVID restrictions on indoor bar and food service, officials said Monday.

While the restrictions have been in place since Nov. 4, the issue flared over the weekend as videos and photos circulated on social media showing young people crowding into downtown bars. Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner on Sunday decried the "MANY totally irresponsible actions in our city" over the weekend, including downtown.

The city is considering its options, said City Manager Tim Gleason. They include penalties through the Bloomington Liquor Commission, such as suspending or revoking a liquor license. The city has also talked with the McLean County state's attorney's office about potential criminal liability (a misdemeanor) through the Illinois Administrative Code, said Gleason.

"We're putting a case together," Gleason said Monday.

The city has already forwarded COVID-related complaints against at least 10 businesses to the McLean County Health Department, Gleason said. But those complaints on their own will not yield penalties; MCHD officials say they have no "authority to close or fine businesses for noncompliance with the state’s guidelines or proclamations."

That leaves the city to do it. Renner told WGLT on Monday he likely will call a special liquor commission meeting this week and could move to suspend or revoke the liquor licenses of businesses that have most flagrantly violated the state’s ban on indoor service. He said he's looking to act within 48 hours, to get ahead of next weekend.

Renner's Facebook post on Sunday came hours after videos began circulating on social media, purportedly showing a packed downtown Bloomington bar on Saturday night. College-aged young people, like those who frequent downtown Bloomington, are the hardest-hit age group for COVID-19 in McLean County. 

WGLT has not been able to confirm the authenticity of the videos that were taken from Snapchat. It was unclear if they were shot Saturday night, as claimed, or sometime earlier.

“It’s hard to believe they’re all inaccurate, all of these accounts,” Renner said Monday, as McLean County set new records for active COVID cases and the testing positivity rate. “This is something that’s just over the top — if it’s true.”

Gleason said he suspected that the weekend of Nov. 13-15 brought more young people to downtown Bloomington than the weekend of Nov. 7-9 because many college students are returning to their permanent residences after Thanksgiving break and not coming back until January — or later. One last hurrah, in other words.

'Come on, Bloomington'

Bloomington City Council member Julie Emig, whose Ward 4 includes parts of downtown, also posted a COVID-19 message to Facebook on Sunday. She said it was partly in response to the videos circulating online.

“Come on, Bloomington. This is not political. Viruses do not distinguish. They are not sentient beings. We are. We can make decisions based on scientific data. When did heeding directives from the medical community become so controversial? This is personal for me. This has affected my family, my friends, my community. What will it take? The death of a loved one? Your own illness? An economic shutdown that will overshadow anything we've seen before? Get it together. Be smart. Be of service. CARE.”

Those sharing the videos on social media say they were taken at Daddio’s, a bar on downtown’s north end. WGLT has not been able to confirm that. WGLT also obtained a photo showing a crowd of maskless young people lined up to get into nearby Killarney’s Irish Pub in downtown. It was taken Saturday night.

“I’m still looking into this, but if that was last night, obviously mistakes were made and we’ll have to deal with it,” Daddio’s owner Butch Thompson told WGLT on Sunday. Thompson declined further comment, but said he’d do so at a later time.

He did not respond to a WGLT question about whether Daddio’s was open Saturday night.

The health department has been made aware of downtown bars that allegedly continued to offer indoor service after Nov. 4, said Tom Anderson, the agency's director of environmental health. MCHD has received at least 25 complaints against Bloomington-Normal businesses in recent days, including against Daddio's and Killarney's, he said.

Enforcement options

Enforcement of the state's ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants is tricky. And downtown bars are not the only ones choosing to ignore the state's COVID limits on indoor service. Joe's Station House in Normal and Hacienda Leon, a Mexican restaurant in Bloomington, both announced plans to stay open regardless.

The health department says its options are limited.

"MCHD is doing all that it has been authorized to do in response to the complaints," Anderson said Monday. "That consists of receiving the complaints, processing them, contacting the business owners, and notifying the businesses in writing of the guidelines and proclamations the (Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity), (Illinois Department of Public Health), and the governor have put in place. MCHD has no authority to close or fine businesses for noncompliance with the state’s guidelines or proclamations." 

Anderson said he would like to see municipalities take stronger enforcement measures. That could include revoking a business' liquor license.

McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp on Nov. 4 shared a one-page memo with law enforcement partners and other relevant agencies about enforcement considerations. It cited a "very detailed process" spelled out in state law for how the government can shutter a business or property.

Those are the rules that Knapp's office would follow if asked by another agency to seek a court order to close a business, he said. To date no agency has done that, he said Sunday.

He also cited a section of the Illinois Administrative Code — also referenced by Bloomington's Tim Gleason — related to communicable diseases that lays out a "detailed process through which criminal liability can attach to certain actions."

“While violations of CDC recommendations, IDPH guidelines or executive orders could equate to actionable conduct, such conduct may also not run afoul of any statute, administrative rule or regulation,” Knapp said Sunday via email. “That is why my office has, again, been consistent and clear that we must analyze each factual scenario presented to us in light of applicable laws and authorities to then make a charging decision or decision of whether to initiate court action. Whether it is a traffic ticket, capital murder or attempting to control COVID, when we file documents in court asking the court to exercise its authority to do anything, we must be incredibly specific as to what specific authoritative text the person or business we’re seeking to hold accountable has violated.”

Renner: 'No wink-wink' implied

Renner’s hard line on Monday is a shift from his Nov. 3 letter to Gov. JB Pritzker, in which he expressed concern about the new restrictions taking effect in Region 2 that includes McLean County.

He suggested then that the new restrictions were unfair because the state was “using limited metrics and (it was) based on statistics of some of our neighbors in the region, not our City.” He praised local restaurants and bars for “going above and beyond during this challenging time.”

Renner said Monday that was the right position at that time, noting that the COVID situation has worsened in McLean County in the two weeks since.

“If there were people who thought (of the letter), ‘Hey, this means it’s kind of a wink-wink, we don’t have to abide by the rules,’ there was nothing in there that suggested that at all. That point will be driven home this week for sure,” Renner said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.