The Normal Town Council voted Wednesday to keep in place through Dec. 31 new rules limiting crowds near the Illinois State University campus in response to a spike in local COVID-19 cases, mostly among ISU students.
Now, parties and gatherings near campus are limited to 10 or fewer people, and require social distancing and masks. Also, businesses that serve alcohol can only serve patrons who are sitting at tables or bars. Violations can bring a fine of up to $750.
The area most affected by the party-size limits is the campus area known as the Town of Normal Parking Impact Zone. But the rules will be enforced at multi-family residential buildings, and common areas and parking lots associated with those buildings, anywhere within city limits.
The new ordinances come as a record number of new COVID-19 cases—760 in the past week alone—have been recorded in the county. As of Wednesday, nine people were hospitalized with the virus. The countywide testing positive rate (7-day average) is 10.1%.
Because of the pandemic, the council meeting called specifically to address the ordinances was held remotely. Each new rule passed by a 6-1 vote, extending decisions first outlined Monday as 48-hour emergency orders.
Council member Stan Nord cast the sole opposing vote on both measures, saying he believed the McLean County Health Department, not the town of Normal, should be making decisions on such matters. Several fellow council members disagreed with Nord, saying the council, in fact, did have a responsibility to address the problems with crowds congregating in a public health crisis.
Mayor Chris Koos said he proposed the changes after conversations with mayors from other campus communities. “We are certainly not alone in the situations we are dealing with here,” said Koos.
Many campus towns across the nation have reported surges in COVID cases in the past few weeks, as fall semesters have begun.
“These are some of the techniques that other campus communities have used to address COVID-19 outbreaks affecting their cities," said Koos.
Normal’s government has an obligation to try to tamp down the community's positivity rate, not just as a public health issue, but also to support the Twin City economy, said Koos.
“I’m worried that if we do not do this, and our rate rises, that all businesses in our community will suffer, not just bars and restaurants,” he said.
Council member Kevin McCarthy noted that Normal was nearing a positivity rate that could cause Gov. JB Pritzker to return the community to Phase 3 rules of the pandemic, negatively affecting many local businesses.
The 10-or-less gathering limit is rightly aimed at off-campus parties, said council member Scott Preston, who noted that of the nearly 2,000 COVID-19 cases seen in McLean County since March, more than half have come in just the past two weeks from ISU students. About eight of every 10 ISU-related coranvirus cases involve students living in off-campus housing, he added.
Normal may not be the only governing body that could address ways to stem the spread of COVID, said McCarthy. But, it is one of the governing bodies that can, he said, and not to take action would be irresponsible. “The economic health of Bloomington-Normal and McLean County is at risk,” he added.
McCarthy called the crowd-limiting measures a “specific and surgical way” to take a first step in addressing the virus spread.
As for the mandates pertaining to Normal bars and restaurants, the state pandemic rules require businesses to keep tables six feet apart, said Koos. However, the additional Normal ordinance--which will be citywide--allowing only sitting patrons to be served is another way to limit crowds.
“A lot of the businesses are doing the right thing already,” said Koos, but this allows better enforcement.
The new ordinance for "on-premise liquor establishments" requires not only that patrons be seated to be served, but also that they put masks on while interacting with business staff.
Under the rule, customers may stand only to go to a designated area for ordering or picking up orders, or to walk to restrooms. Even then, they must keep 6 feet apart, and face coverings must go over their mouth--and nose. Standing for games, or entertainment devices such as jukeboxes, also is allowed. However, no more than two people at a time may stand near those.
If conditions change later this fall, the mayor said he and the council could vote to rescind the special pandemic crowd-control rules.
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