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

B-N COVID Rulebreakers Say They're Victims, Not Villains

Bloomington-Normal restaurant owners who shirked the governor's executive orders say they're being painted as villains. But they argue they should've had a seat at the table when COVID-19 mitigations were being developed.

Joe Wargo co-owns Joe's Pub and Joe’s Station House in the Twin Cities. There’s an unresolved complaint against Wargo’s Bloomington business for failing to comply to Tier 3 mitigations. Wargo said they’re just doing the best they can.

“It goes without saying that we've all had our fair share of struggles during this pandemic,” Wargo said at a news conference Tuesday outside of Joe's Pub. “The first word that comes to mind when describing the economic impact that this virus and the mitigations have had on our staff and business is ‘devastating.’ But that word seems to do no justice for the long days and nights that we've experienced over the last nine months.”

Wargo recalled bringing his staff together in March to tell them they’d need to close down shop in order to  reopen at a future date. Back then, he said, business owners and the government alike thought the situation could be under control in a matter of weeks.

Wargo said their plans to weather “15 days to flatten the curve” soon became a fight to keep their business afloat. Like many other business owners, he said, they got financial assistance in the knick of time. But that money has long been spent, with no promise of additional aid on the way.

Wargo said the latest round of mitigations that took effect in mid-November were even more of a letdown than the first.

“At least the last time we could hang our hats on, ‘There is no playbook for COVID-19.’ This time should have been different. This time we deserved a voice,” Wargo said.

Bob Dobski, owner of Rob Dob’s, said what hurts the most is Gov. JB Pritzker doesn't seem to even be thinking about those in the food service industry. Dobski said his Bloomington restaurant tried curbside pick-up for a few weeks, but weren’t making enough to justify staying open; 60 employees were laid off.

“Sixty people are out of work at Christmas time—can't pay bills, can't get those tips in there. And that's what they were counting on,” Dobski said.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said restaurant owners are brave in speaking out against the rules limiting their business operations. He said that’s hard to do at a time when public sentiment is turned against them.

At the news conference, Barickman said the public should be just as concerned about Pritzker's "unilateral" COVID rules as they are about violators. He said Pritzker has issued more than 70 executive orders since the start of the pandemic, impacting all facets of people's lives—from their kids' education, to their place or worship, to their wedding plans.

“If you're concerned about compliance with the orders, then you should be concerned about the manner in which these orders are put into place,” Barickman said. “Today, there is widespread lack of compliance because the public hasn't bought into them. And for that, everyone in the state should be concerned that the process has failed them.”

Barickman argued Pritzker is violating the Constitution by usurping the Legislature in making these decisions himself, adding he’d like to see public hearings held for a more collaborative approach to the challenges facing the state.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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