As DeKalb County grapples with flailing businesses and leaders ask for data, health officials stress contact tracing supports mitigations

DeKalb County Health Department Administrator Lisa Gonzalez said when health officials ask those who've tested positive for COVID-19 where they've been in the past two weeks, a common denominator is a bar or restaurant.

"The truth is, when they look at data from contact tracing and case investigation, and when we ask those people where have you been in the past week or two, restaurants and bars come in the top three," Gonzalez said Friday. "But there’s also research, national research, that looks at those who go to restaurants and bars are just more likely to spread COVID because it’s a place where you’re congregating with your mask off because you can’t eat or drink with the mask on."

It's the type of explanation echoed for weeks by local and state health officials as COVID-19 cases surge in record numbers across the state, and health regions, including Region 1 which includes DeKalb County, Rockford and the Sauk Valley area, and reiterated by officials as they field the force of seven months of frustrations by business owners being told they must halt indoor dining again.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in an emotional press conference Friday tracing cases back to eateries directly is difficult, but contact tracing data which records locations a patient has been consistently show bars and restaurants as placed where significant community spread occurs.

"I'm desperate to find a message that will work," Ezike said. "The virus has caused this and instead of pitting one group against another, we need to get that and fight against the virus. We have a mask and we're asking people to use that and I don't know what else to say."

Enforcement for such mitigations falls largely on local health departments, who track non-compliance based on a complaint system, and followup with several steps before seeking any legal action, which haven't been taken yet.

DeKalb County Chairman Mark Pietrowski is calling for any enforcement to be handed down equally.

“The biggest thing I want is fairness," Pietrowski said during a DeKalb County Board meeting Wednesday. "I don’t want to see our county following the rules and then other counties not following and not having repercussions for doing so.”

Region 1 entered enhanced mitigations earlier this month, which prohibits indoor dining at restaurants, bars and large gatherings. On Thursday, additional mitigations were imposed, effective Sunday, due to a continued rise in COVID-19 cases.

Pietrowski said the state has been very clear about requirements for mitigation efforts and have different things in place for enforcement. However, he said, some aspects of enforcement fall on local health departments that just don’t have the adequate resources for that, per those state guidelines.

“So it really puts them [local health officials] in a tough spot,” Pietrowski said.

Pietrowski said he believes the state has done well trying to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic overall and to keep positivity rates down. He said he's all about safety, but if there are rules in place, the state should either enforce those rules or let individual counties do what they need to do to ensure businesses can keep operating.

State Representative Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore) on Friday sent a letter to the members of the Illinois congressional delegation urging them to prioritize a COVID-19 relief package that will provide support to independent and family-owned restaurants, taverns and their employees; those hardest hit by COVID-19 mitigation policies across the state.

Keicher said while safety remains a priority, the plight of local businesses needs addressing, since restaurants refusing to shut down indoor dining are saving their livelihoods.

"I have had multiple conversations with multiple restaurants over t the past three weeks as well as heard from employees of restaurants scared to death about the viability of their future," Keicher said Friday. "That is not to understate the importance of making sure that we protect the health and welfare of our community."

Keicher said he's been urging Pritzker or IDPH to share specific data that shows local cases in DeKalb County are connected to bars and restaurants.

"Restaurant and taverns are being made out to be the bad guy," Keicher said. "We aren't talking about the gatherings to the extent that we are, we aren't talking about schools that are open, we aren't talking about places of work where there is known spread. Instead, we are drastically impacting the viability of the mom and pop restaurants that are the backbone of our community."

Shortly after Region 1 mitigations were first announced, IDPH released data which they said back up the decision to first target bars and restaurants, where part of the experience is eating and drinking among those who may not be in your quarantine bubble.

According to in-state contact tracing data which surveyed 17,939 cases of the virus, restaurants and bars account for 2,300 of those cases, second only to "other," a category that includes vacations, family gatherings, weddings and college parties.

According to data released by Keicher's office Friday, he said this week it was reported that 5,000 establishments have closed, and 120,000 Illinoisans are out of work in the industry., and the Illinois Restaurant Association estimates that 40% of restaurants will permanently close.

Keicher acknowledged pandemic fatigue abounds, and emphasized safety remains a priority.

"We all need to make sure regardless of how you believe the severity of this illness," he said. "Those basic things that we can do, washing hands, covering our mouth with a face mask and staying 6 feet apart would reduce the spread, reduce the concern and allow us to open more quickly."