Slew of COVID Complaints In McLean County Show Frustration, Confusion | WGLT

Slew of COVID Complaints In McLean County Show Frustration, Confusion

Sep 19, 2020

Hundreds of complaints in Bloomington-Normal about pandemic safety rules show a disunited public attitude toward those rules, widely varying levels of public awareness about them, and striking economic pressure on businesses struggling to survive in the current landscape.

A WGLT review of nearly 300 complaints against McLean County businesses, nonprofits and other organizations during the first five months of the pandemic show only a few repeat offenders, but public health officials dealt with a mix of frustration, anger and confusion over safety protocols that for many people either went too far or not far enough.

Most of the coronavirus-related complaints were over staff or customers not wearing masks or enforcing social distancing guidelines, but in the first few weeks after Gov. JB Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order and closed all nonessential businesses, some people tried to report businesses for staying open when they should have closed.

The complaints make it apparent some business owners and some in the public weren’t clear about the rules.

The McLean County Health Department fielded nearly 350 COVID-related complaints during the first five months of the pandemic.
Credit Staff / WGLT

The McLean County Health Department (MCHD) is the lead agency for fielding COVID-related complaints. According to documents WGLT obtained through open records requests, the agency received more than 50 complaints about businesses allegedly violating the state’s shelter-in-place order.

Following up, the health department determined most of the businesses were either deemed essential by the state, were open by appointment, or were only doing curbside service. In some cases, people who were reported inside the store were employees, not customers as the complaints alleged.

According to a complaint filed on April 3 against the Audibel Hearing Center in Bloomington, the business was open and there was no way it could maintain social distancing.

“This is an atrocity that spits in the face of the efforts to keep the most vulnerable safe and, quite frankly, is elder neglect by this provider, not to mention all the patients that come and go and also spreading germs,” the anonymous complaint said.

A store representative told the health department it was considered an essential business, was open only for emergency appointments and only allowed one customer at a time.

The health department did send cease-and-desist orders to several businesses that appeared to defy the state’s shelter-in-place order.

Pizza Ranch opened its buffet-style restaurant for indoor dining in early June, weeks ahead of the region’s move to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan that allowed for limited-capacity indoor dining.

General Manager Nick Petersen provided the county with Pizza Ranch’s “Reopening Playbook” for all of its stores. The 32-page document outlines cleaning and sanitation guidelines, wellness checks for staff and other reopening procedures. It requires masks for all staff that work in the dining area, but does not require them of customers, even though the state of Illinois had a mask mandate in place.

MCHD forwarded its findings to the McLean County State’s Attorney’s office and the Illinois attorney general. Authorities took no action.

Skate 'N' Place in Bloomington is up for sale and remains open on weekends.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

In another case, the owner of Skate 'N' Place in Bloomington told the health department it was prepared to go to court to defend its right to reopen in early June.

The owner said the business would go bankrupt if it was not allowed to reopen soon and that the governor's executive orders were “unconstitutional and illegal” because they had exceeded 30 days.

A judge in Clay County had ruled the orders were beyond the governor’s authority, but the scope of the case was so narrow it had no effect. The case is still tied up in the courts.

The skate business owner said it planned to only open five hours a week and their “attorneys will gladly fight any closure order in court.”

The county recommended the business seek an exemption from the governor’s closure of nonessential businesses and determined no further action was needed.

The business remains open on a limited basis, at reduced capacity. A sign at the door says masks are “strongly encouraged,” but not required because skating is cardio exercise. The business also is up for sale. 

Circle II Bar and Grill in Heyworth also challenged the governor’s shutdown, telling MCHD it has outdoor seating, but some customers are choosing to eat inside. According to the complaint, the owner said “they had been closed for 10 weeks and need to be able to make money.” The owner told the county its lawyer maintains no laws were being broken and that it plans to continue.

The complaint against the bar stated the bar is “packed every Friday and Saturday.”

“It’s ridiculous that they are allowed to do this when other law-abiding restaurants remain closed if they do not have outdoor seating,” the complaint said.

COVID Complaints

Confusion obvious

With some alleged violations, it’s less clear if owners intended to violate stay-at-home orders, or if they violated them at all.

MCHD issued a cease-and-desist order to John’s Barbershop in LeRoy over a claim the business was sneaking customers in while keeping the blinds closed. The owner told the department he comes into the shop because his wife is working from home and is on the phone, so he goes in to watch the news and have coffee. He said friends have stopped by to chat, but “not more than one on any given morning for an hour or two.”

Parkview Inn in Bloomington faced complaints in early June that it was allowing customers to dine in when only outdoor seating was allowed. A representative of the restaurant said they allowed “elderly customers to dine inside to shelter from the heat,” and they were being socially distant.

Swimming pools were a point of confusion early in the summer before Phase 4 took effect. Complaints were filed against the Bloomington-Normal YMCA, Crestwicke Country Club, Lakeside Country Club and the Oakridge subdivision in Bloomington over use of their pools. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) later clarified its guidelines to allow lap swimming, diving, swimming lessons, practices and therapy pool use, but otherwise they must remain closed.

Those making the complaints weren’t the only ones not clear on guidelines. A representative of Crestwicke Country Club told the health department that they thought McLean County had adopted the Heart of Illinois plan that would have allowed businesses to reopen sooner. The county briefly considered the plan that regional leaders had crafted before coronavirus cases rose sharply.

But officials in 11 central Illinois counties abandoned the idea after Pritzker said they could lose federal reimbursements if they didn’t follow the governor’s guidelines. 

Days before Phase 4 began allowing for indoor dining, storms created a chaotic scene at Rob Dob’s restaurant in Bloomington. People eating outside had to run for cover when storms hit and a band was playing outside.

According to the complaint, staff “tried to get guests food orders to go or give gift certificates to those who hadn’t ordered yet” but did acknowledge there was a lot of confusion and some guests thought they would be able to be served inside.” Staff acknowledged few patrons were practicing social distancing during that time.

Preventive complaints

Some complaints tried to stop potentially risky events before they happened, with mixed results.

A complaint was filed on July 2 in advance of a planned Fourth of July party at The Lodge apartments near Illinois State University.

“There are already hundreds of students that have come to town and are staying in the area,” the complaint stated. “I am concerned about the students from across the state bringing coronavirus to our community when a giant gathering is not necessary. It is putting us in danger.”

MCHD told Young America Realty, the company that manages the apartments, the party could become a COVID-19 “super spreading event.”

Young America said it hired private security to limit it to invited guests, but that each of its residents was allowed to bring four guests, making it possible that as many as 3,000 people could attend.

MCHD sent a written notice not to hold the event, and Young America pulled back on those plans, but later in the summer large crowds of people were seen outside the complex that also was the site of a large flash mob gathering orchestrated by a group of YouTube pranksters known as the Nelk Boys. In August, at the request of Normal Mayor Chris Koos, Young America agreed to close its common areas to prevent large crowds from gathering.

The health department struggled to limit crowds at another event that same month in Bloomington. August.

While the McLean County Fair Board canceled this year’s county fair, the Illinois Junior Livestock Classic went on as scheduled at the McLean County Fairgrounds in Bloomington.

Warned of the event in advance, MCHD spoke to the fairgrounds managers and recommended they cancel the event.

Organizers replied they intended to limit the number of attendees and require face coverings. The inspector who issued the food permit noticed “there were large numbers of people with no social distancing and no masks.”

The McLean County Farm Bureau which manages the fairgrounds referred questions to event organizers who did not return calls seeking comment.

Mask compliance

A majority of the complaints the McLean County Health Department received came in response to the mask order Pritzker issued on May 1, but one complaint filed against a Bloomington nursing home may have provided a red flag that preceded a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

A complaint in March said 15 to 20 people at the Bloomington Rehabilitation and Health Care Center displayed COVID symptoms, weeks before an outbreak was confirmed at the facility.
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT

On March 26, a complaint claimed 15 to 20 residents at the Bloomington Rehabilitation and Health Care Center were showing COVID-19 symptoms, but it said any employees caught wearing a mask would be fired because there was a mask shortage.

The facility administrator told MCHD no staff or residents were showing symptoms and that all personal protective equipment (PPE) was reserved for those who have COVID symptoms. The report indicated “staff is concerned staff will cross-contaminate from room to room if PPE is misused.”

The complaint was forwarded to the Illinois Department of Public Health's long-term care hotline.

By early May, the nursing home had a COVID outbreak. Dozens of residents and staff became infected and 11 people died.

MCHD administrator Jessica McKnight said at the time early investigations of the facility showed no red flags.

The company that runs the nursing home, Peoria-based Petersen Health Care, received $20 million to offset COVID-related costs.

Repeat offenders

Complaints have come in against dozens of businesses and organizations, with some being repeat offenders.

LeRoy True Value faced six complaints about not enforcing the mask ordinance. One complaint said no one inside the store was wearing a face covering.

“They are asking that we use our elbows to open the door, but they are not wearing masks,” the complaint said. “I do not feel comfortable shopping here when they are not taking safety precautions.”

Owner Mike Hanifan told a health department staff member “everyone should get it over with and get COVID so things can get back to normal,” according to the complaint.

The owner told MCHD he would consider putting up plexiglass at the front counter. The county also asked the store to submit detailed COVID mitigation plans and the store hasn’t responded. Hanifan refused comment when WGLT called.

LeRoy considered a citywide mask ordinance that would have fined violators, but the city council rejected it. According to MCHD data, 31 confirmed coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the LeRoy area since the start of the pandemic.

A series of complaints against St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Bloomington indicates how public health goals can intersect. The church faced multiple complaints over Alcoholics Anonymous meetings of up to 30 people being held regularly in its rectory with no social distancing or masks.

A church leader told the health department the church’s lawyer had all participants sign a release that they wouldn’t sue the church if they contracted COVID-19.

As the complaints continued, the county sent a letter to the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield. The diocese replied, “I am sure you would agree that AA also serves a public health need and that without regular meetings there is a potential to lose lives to alcoholism and its ancillary issues.”

A Bloomington police officer came upon a crash scene without wearing a mask according to one complaint submitted to the McLean County Health Department.
Credit Amy Niebur / WGLT

Even public entities weren’t immune from COVID complaints. One complainant said they see many City of Bloomington workers riding in trucks or working in close proximity not wearing masks. Another said a Bloomington police officer responded to a crash scene not wearing a mask. The officer said masks were optional for officers, according to the complaint.

BPD public information officer John Fermon said he didn’t have information about the specific complaint, but said officers can be disciplined or even fired based on the city’s conduct code. He said police administration has emphasized mask wearing on the job.

The city’s communications and external affairs manager, Nora Dukowitz, said the city’s policy is to speak with employees about expectations for COVID protections.

Employee enforcement

A few employers have gone further than that.

A Subway restaurant manager fired employees who were the source of a complaint on July 9. The complainant said an employee replied, “I don’t want to hear it,” when asked about not wearing a mask.

“Our community has too many infected 20-something for this person to be so cavalier,” the complaint stated. ”To think he’s breathing all over the food. Unbelievable!”

Prairie Fire Grill in Heyworth told MCHD it would review surveillance video and discipline workers if they weren’t wearing a mask.

Tom Anderson oversees inspections and complaints in the environmental health division of the McLean County Health Department. He said each business should make its own decision about whether to discipline staff.

“It’s up to each individual business owner to set their own policies. If that’s what their policy is, then I think they are doing their due diligence in ensuring they are protecting their customers and their other employees,” Anderson said.

He acknowledged the health department’s role in helping to contain the spread of COVID-19 is more about education than enforcement, but he added he thinks stronger enforcement would lead to better compliance.

“I believe it would only take one or two hearings and suspensions of various food permits of the most egregious violators before the word got out to the rest of the establishments,” Anderson said.

Enforcement is left to State’s Attorney Don Knapp, who has said these violations are not part of the criminal code.

Each government body can decide enforcement for itself. The Town of Normal recently approved two emergency orders intended to limit crowds in and around the Illinois State University campus after the college students contributed to a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. Fines are up to $750.

Bloomington Police recently started COVID compliance checks at bars and restaurants. Mayor Tari Renner, who serves as the city’s liquor commissioner, warned owners who don’t comply could lose their liquor licenses.

The city is considering penalties against one Bloomington bar, Cadillac Jack’s, that allegedly violated COVID protocols multiple times.

For now, the MCHD's response is to send a letter to repeat offenders warning them “you may be subject to immense liability if an outbreak is traced to your facility.”

Thousands of COVID lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. Legal experts maintain the best way to limit liability is to show you are following the rules.

“It’s almost impossible!”

Some business owners say they'e told MCHD they are doing the best they can to follow the rules, but some customers respond with verbal or physical threats, or they just flat out refuse to comply.

After a Casey’s General Store in Normal was named in two complaints four days apart in June, a manager told the health department, “It is almost impossible to get the public in this climate to wear (a mask) when they don’t want to, sometimes turning violent when asked.”

A manager at a Dollar General store in Heyworth told the health department corporate policy says do not ask customers to put on masks. The manager said customers “went off on her” after she confronted them.

A manager at the Walmart in Bloomington said the company stopped requiring masks and would instead “strongly recommend” them “due to a rash of threats against their associates by angry customers who insisted they have a right not to wear face coverings because they suffered from breathing issues or health-related issues.” Walmart asks those shoppers to agree to maintain social distance in the store.

Breathing problems and other health issues are a common response for why someone isn’t wearing a mask. Some employees also have made that claim, especially those who may work in a restaurant kitchen where it gets hot easily.

The manager at Bloomington Dairy Queen told MCHD after a June complaint about seeing nearly all the workers not wearing a mask, “working conditions in the kitchen do sometimes get very warm” and employees “have a tendency to wear masks around the neck or chin because they are uncomfortable.”

Anderson said the department doesn’t have a list of medical conditions that may qualify for exemptions.

The Illinois Department of Public Health says anyone with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering can’t be required to wear one, and they don’t have to provide proof of any medical condition. 

An attorney recently told McLean County business owners they have the right to turn away customers who don’t comply if they offer them a reasonable accommodation, such as curbside pickup.

Illinois also put in place new protections for employees who have become victims of harassment from angry shoppers. It’s now felony aggravated battery to assault a store employee who is enforcing a mask requirement.

Complaint overload

The McLean County Health Department fields complaints on everything from food safety to rodents and failed septic systems, but a global pandemic has overshadowed all those concerns.

Anderson said prior to Labor Day weekend, the department handled 345 COVID-related complaints since the start of the pandemic in March. That compares with 211 complaints of all types the county took in all of 2019.

Anderson said that has been overwhelming for his field staff of eight to investigate. He said the department recently stopped taking complaints that are based simply on what someone may have heard from a friend or saw on social media.

“As time went on, we are finding that a lot of third-party complaints were not valid complaints and they were tying up a lot of our staff time,” he said.

Anderson noted the department has noticed an uptick in complaints when Pritzker issues a new order, such as when he called for local governments to fine people who don’t comply with the mask order.

Anderson recommended ways business owners can avoid getting a call from the health department. He said bars and restaurants have rotated staffs and limited menu items to keep the kitchen from overcrowding. Others have hired security to deal with unruly customers.

“I’ve even stated to business operators if you have an unruly customer like that, do you really want them as a customer in your establishment?” Anderson said.

Anderson said if you are a customer, vote with your feet, and tell store owners when they aren’t keeping people safe and spend your money where they are following the guidelines.

“Don’t be bashful about sending an email to the management of that company and say, ‘I like your business, I patronize your business, now I don’t feel safe so I’ve gone to this other business,'” Anderson said. “I think that’s the only way businesses are going to take it seriously and the rest of the public.”

In parts of Illinois where fewer people have practiced social distancing, some businesses have faced new restrictions.

McLean County was recently removed from Illinois COVID-warning list while its 20-county region is approaching COVID-positivity rates that could lead to new restrictions.

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