Normal Fines Restaurant For Violating COVID Mitigations
UPDATED 10 a.m. | The Normal Liquor Commission on Monday voted 5-2 to fine a bar and restaurant about $4,000 for violating COVID-19 mitigation rules.
The owners of Joe’s Station House Pizza Pub, located at the Shoppes at College Hills, plan to appeal the decision, their attorney said.
The fines come after owners Tony and Joe Wargo ignored Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive orders prohibiting indoor dining, as part of the state’s COVID restrictions n place at the tme. The business was cited for allowing patrons to eat and drink indoors, twice in November, and once in December.
Pritzker ended that rule in Central Illinois and other parts of the state Jan. 17, when case numbers weren't as high. It had been in place since mid-November.
The commission, which consists of town council members, discussed impartial hearing officer Todd Greenburg's recommendations for nearly an hour Monday before voting to move forward with the fines. Council members Stan Nord and Scott Preston voted “no.”
The fines are $1,750 with an additional $2,420 to cover hearing costs.
The situation had aggravating factors because the owners broke the law purposefully, and indoor dining at that time was a danger to the public’s health, said city attorney Brian Day.
He said the hearing officer disagreed with the business owners' arguments that the governor’s executive orders didn’t amount to state law, and that the Normal Liquor Commission didn’t have the authority to enforce the indoor dining ban.
“It blows my mind to basically say, 'The governor’s executive order has no weight,'" said council member Chemberly Cummings.
Mayor Chris Koos said he supported issuing the fine, in part, because the town had sent a letter asking the business to stop flaunting the orders, but it was disregarded.
“We gave them two to three weeks before we took action. We gave them time for consideration to comply,” he said.
The question of whether the liquor code should have been used to address a health department issue didn’t sit well with Preston, he said. But the hearing officer did rule, based on previous Illinois cases, that such breadth is permitted, Day said.
Plus, at a time when businesses are struggling, Preston didn’t feel comfortable issuing fines to Joe’s, he said.
Council member Kevin McCarthy said specifically because businesses were struggling is why Joe’s needed to be held accountable. “There needs to be a level playing field,” he said. Other Normal bars and restaurants were being disadvantaged by Joe’s actions, he said.
Nord said because of the ways different communities did or didn’t enforce the executive orders, businesses were uncertain about what was allowed during the mitigations.
But council member Kathleen Lorenz disagreed. “Everybody else seemed to act accordingly,” she said. Other Normal restaurants didn't violate the indoor ban.
Lorenz said the vote boiled down whether the commission agreed with the hearing officer’s findings, and she concurred: “Yes, it's a law. Yes it's enforceable,” she said.
McCarthy also said it keeps parity between the Twin Cities, as Bloomington’s Liquor Commission also fined businesses violating the governor’s restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Late Monday, the Wargo brothers’ attorney, Tom DeVore, told WGLT they’ll appeal the decision to the state liquor commission, and possibly the courts.
“The ruling defies any measure of common sense, and is yet another example of people holding positions of power for which they have no business holding,” DeVore said.
DeVore says his clients would only be required to pay half the $920 transcription costs, if and when the appeal were filed; and he questions the legality of charging the Wargos $1,500 to cover the hearing officer’s costs. However, Koos said Normal's counsel disgrees with that interpretation.
The Wargos also own Joe's Pub in Bloomington. That city also fined that establishment for similar skirting of rules during the indoor service ban, mandated after a spike in coronavirus cases statewide.
Another $335,000 ready for housing assistance
After the hour-long remote liquor commission meeting, The Normal Town Council met for its regular meeting.
City planner Taylor Long told the council Normal wants to use $335,000 in federal COVID-related grants to continue its efforts to help struggling residents pay for housing.
The money is part of the Community Block Development Grant Coronavirus (CBDG-CV) program, operated through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Normal already has distributed the first of two allocations from the program, using about $245,000 for housing aid.
“Housing assistance is still the greatest need facing the community that can be addressed with these CDBG-CV funds,” said Long, adding ift turned out the money wasn’t all needed for housing, the council could later reallocate it.
The $335,000 is the second allotment, from September. It needs to be spent before the town’s fiscal year ends March 31, Long said.
He outlined the steps needed to release the money, including a public comment period from Feb. 4-21; a virtual public hearing set for 6 p.m., Feb. 10, and the council’s vote on the matter March 1.
In other business, the council:
- Conditionally approved several actions tied to the final development plan for the J&M Planned Unit Development, south and east of 1000 S. Cottage Avenue.
- Continued an annual abatement process, related to a 2004 economic development plan. According to council materials, Monday’s vote reduced by about $120,000 the property taxes to be paid by the Shoppes at College Hills. The 2020 property tax levy for the Shoppes will be $198,707. The levy has no impact on the town’s total property tax rate.
- OK’d spending up to $45,000 on necessary repairs and improvements for a city fire engine. The life of the vehicle is expected to now extend to 2030.
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