UPDATED 8:35 p.m. | McLean County's head of COVID enforcement says there's a frustrating disconnect between the governor's office and local officials in enforcing the ban on indoor dining.
This comes as coronavirus cases are surging across Illinois and Gov. JB Pritzker has suggested the state could soon be headed for a lockdown similar to the start of the pandemic.
McLean County Health Department Environmental Health Director Tom Anderson said Pritzker’s coronavirus emergency orders address individuals causing health hazards, not businesses.
“The governor is saying one thing and the public is hearing that, but he hasn’t given local municipalities the authority on which he is telling the public we have,” Anderson said.
Many bar and restaurant owners have said they plan to stay open. Others have done so quietly. An attorney who has challenged Pritzker’s orders said the state has no legal authority to shut them down.
McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp has said violations of these orders don’t amount to a criminal act.
“If an individual knows that they are infected and they are wantonly going out in public and coughing and sneezing on people and not wearing a mask, then I think the state’s attorney may take a different perspective on that,” Anderson explained.
Anderson said he would like to see municipalities take stronger enforcement measures. That could include citations or revoking a business' liquor license.
“Local elected officials also have a say as to what their governmental bodies can do, so there seems to be a disconnect there between the governor and local officials,” Anderson said.
Bloomington temporarily stepped up enforcement during the Labor Day weekend, when those establishments still had indoor service. It led to fines against a bar for not enforcing the state’s mask requirement. Normal fined four people for hosting “large gatherings” on several nights in mid-September.
Anderson added his office has taken 17 complaints about bars and restaurants allowing indoor dining since the governor's order took effect Nov. 4, and 37 COVID complaints overall during that time.
Defying the order
Joe’s Station House is one example of a local restaurant that continued indoor service even after the new restrictions went into effect.
In a Facebook post Nov. 4 (the day the restrictions kicked in), the owners of Joe’s said they wouldn’t abide by the new rules. They also said they notified the McLean County Health Department “of our intentions.” MCHD’s Anderson confirmed that happened.
“This choice does not simply affect us as proprietors of Joe’s Station House and Joe’s Pub, it also deeply affects our staff,” they wrote. “So we discussed the options with them and, with overwhelming support, we have collectively decided to continue to allow our loyal and supportive guests to dine inside our two locations.”
Indeed, a WGLT reporter observed the dining room at Joe's Station House (the Normal location) filled with patrons the evening of Nov. 6, with only a few people wearing masks. There was also a long line of people coming in and parking outside to grab pickup orders.
Normal Police officers were called to Joe’s, spoke to an owner, and documented what they saw, said Police Chief Rick Bleichner. Their report was sent to the McLean County Health Department, he said. The business remained open.
Owners Joe and Tony Wargo did not respond to WGLT questions.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos, who is also the town's liquor commissioner, said Friday he was unaware of the decision by Joe's but would look into the situation.
Joe's is not the only one. Hacienda Leon, a Mexican restaurant in Bloomington, said Friday it too would continue indoor service in defiance of the new restrictions. Its Facebook announcement was nearly word-for-word identical to the Joe's Facebook post.
Knapp on Nov. 4 shared a one-page memo with law enforcement partners and other relevant agencies about enforcement considerations related to the new mitigations. 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.
"We recommend that those who are unfamiliar with the mandates of authorities applicable to the operation of a business during the time of COVID-19 conduct a review of all relevant laws with legal counsel," Knapp wrote.
Knapp did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday on whether he's been asked to intervene in the Joe's case or any other local restaurant or bar.
Anderson said he understands the economic pressures businesses face as they are forced to significantly downsize their operations indefinitely. Restaurants and bars are a major employer in Bloomington-Normal, and many of those jobs have evaporated during the pandemic. The leisure and hospitality sector had just 8,700 jobs in September, down 20% from this time a year ago, state data show.
But he said opening during a time of heightened COVID concerns creates a vicious circle that puts customers’ health at risk.
“If you get all of your patrons ill, you’re not going to have any patrons to give you business,” Anderson said. “They shouldn’t provide business to that business owner because apparently that business owner has complete disregard for that customer’s health and the health of the public.”
Contact tracing in Illinois shows bars and restaurants are among the leading places for COVID exposure. Anderson said that stands to reason, especially given that many service employees work at multiple hospitality venues and in some cases live with others who work in the same industry.
“It’s very easy to spread the virus through that means,” he said.
Anderson added keeping a business open also exposes those employees to the coronavirus, the same people the owners are trying to help.
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