‘A little bit more oomph’: McHenry County businesses, officials react to Pritzker’s new enforcement tools for COVID-19 rules

New tiered enforcement guidelines meant to support local agencies in overseeing businesses, schools, day care centers

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Enforcement of COVID-19 safety regulations for local businesses may look a bit different moving forward after Gov. JB Pritzker’s new three-tiered enforcement guidelines were approved Tuesday by an Illinois General Assembly committee.

The new guidelines were designed to give local law enforcement and health departments more tools to help them enforce safety protocols for businesses, schools and day care centers, according to Pritzker’s Friday news conference.

“For us, this just means that there’s a little bit more oomph to enforcement power,” McHenry County Department of Public Health spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said.

But not all local agencies plan on using the new tools.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office will stick to its original policy regarding COVID-19 business enforcement calls despite the new rules, said sheriff’s deputy Sandra Rogers, the department’s spokeswoman.

“We will educate the business on the governor’s order and ask for compliance,” Rogers wrote in an emailed statement. “We continue to maintain that we have no plans to enforce the governor’s orders as a criminal offense.”

The rules outline three levels of enforcement for businesses that fail to comply with safety regulations, such as the use of face masks or capacity limits, according to the governor's news conference.

First, the establishment is given a written warning and encouraged to comply. Second, enforcement agencies can ask that some or all of a business’ patrons leave if they have exceeded their capacity limit. Finally, if noncompliance continues, a business can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor resulting in a fine ranging from $75 to $2,500.

Previously, the only penalty available was a misdemeanor, Pritzker said in the Friday news conference.

“We want to stay open,” Crystal Lake Brewing owner John O’Fallon said of the new rules. “I’m all for encouraging every business to keep people as safe as possible just because I don’t want to revert back to Phase 3.”

Collin Beck, general manager of BBQ King’s Huntley location, said he also does not anticipate the new guidelines being a problem for the restaurant as they make sure to follow all of the rules outlined by the state.

“For us, I don’t really see this as a huge ordeal,” Beck said. “If somebody else chooses not to follow the rules then that’s their issue, but other than that, we’re going to do what’s best for us and have to kind of worry about ourselves right now.”

When it comes to enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols, the MCDH's environmental health division oversees the county's food-related businesses, Salvatelli said. All other businesses fall under the jurisdiction of the local police department or the McHenry County Sheriff's Office.

The MCDH has been in discussions with these other agencies to determine what these new tiered guidelines will look like for the county, Salvatelli said.

McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce President Kay Bates said she felt the three-step enforcement approach may be too tough on businesses as they already are struggling to navigate a difficult situation.

“I just hate to see that it’s come to this to where we have to apply these rules towards a small-business person [who] is suffering, just trying to do their job on a day-to-day basis,” Bates said, adding that she also doesn’t want to see McHenry County take a step backward in reopening either.

Bates said she took issue with the second step of the guidelines in which local law enforcement or the health department could ask patrons to leave a business exceeding its capacity limit.

“I do not like the idea of humiliating a business owner in front of [their] patrons,” she said. “I just don’t like that part of it.”

The concern of this step hurting a business’ reputation is a valid one, Salvatelli said. Concerns like this one are part of the reason why the health department values the opinions of partners like the chamber of commerce, she said.

“I think that an overwhelming majority of [businesses] want to do what’s right,” Salvatelli said.

After the health department asked Texas Roadhouse's Crystal Lake location to temporarily shutdown because of at least five cases of COVID-19 among patrons and staff, the company's vice president of communications, Travis Doster, expressed similar concerns about how the agency's response might harm the business' reputation within the community.

“I just think it’s blighting the restaurant industry more than any other industry and, I mean, I don’t even know if this restaurant will survive and that’s 140 jobs,” Doster said in an interview last week. “And then everybody thinks it’s safe to go to Walmart or Target but don’t go to this restaurant, there was an outbreak. All they hear is outbreak, outbreak.”

Providing more structure and clarity around how enforcement should be handled could ultimately be helpful for businesses, O’Fallon said.

“If you don’t have a clear path, a clear way of handling it then it doesn’t really do anybody any good,” he said.

Before these minimum guidelines, enforcement options went straight to a misdemeanor and there was a bit of gray area around how to respond, Pritzker said in his news conference last Friday.

“I really like the idea of of having a warning because sometimes, for the small business owners, it’s not even a decision that they’re making to be outside of the regulations,” O’Fallon said. “Sometimes they’re just not even aware, so I mean a warning seems fair.”

The MCDH already takes an education approach over an enforcement one in most cases, but enforcement tools are sometimes necessary, Salvatelli said.

Both Beck and O’Fallon said they had positive experiences working with the county health department to understand the safety regulations and ensure their businesses were complying.

“We sat down and talked about it and we’ve been compliant with everything,” Beck said. “So we’re just going to keep trying to keep our customers and our employees safe and that’s all we can do.”

Although the governor’s new rules are likely to bring change, Salvatelli said the health department will continue to work collaboratively to protect the health and safety of all county residents.

“It’s something that we’re going to have to see play out. We have this tool available. How is it going to be applied? And how do we do that tactfully?” she said.

“It will be a little bit of an undertaking but I think once things are established and everybody kind of knows the deal, it should be smooth sailing,” Salvatelli said.