As McHenry County joins the list of Illinois regions under COVID-19 mitigation, some local bar and restaurant owners are weighing the risk of defying the governor’s order to close indoor dining.
Katheryn Loprino invested time and money to keep the Public House of Woodstock open while adhering to earlier restrictions enacted by the Illinois Department of Public Health, she said.
For Loprino, making her customers feel safe and healthy dining indoors meant spending money and limiting customers. She installed a new air purification system, rearranged her dining room and expanded her outdoor patio area.
But on Wednesday, Loprino and the rest of McHenry County’s bar and restaurant owners learned they will no longer be allowed to serve customers indoors for at least two weeks. The renewed limitations have prompted Loprino and others in the area to ask themselves a tough question: Is there greater risk in defying the governor’s order or following it?
“I don’t want to negate what the governor has mandated, but nothing is making any sense,” Loprino said. “There’s no restrictions on big box stores. It really just feels targeted and intentional toward the restaurant industry right now.”
Gov. JB Pritzker announced the mitigation restrictions on Wednesday, as the region made up of McHenry and Lake counties entered its third consecutive day above the 8% positivity threshold.
McHenry County was home to 6,631 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, up 99 cases since Tuesday, and 120 people in the area have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to McHenry County Department of Health data. The county’s recovery rate remained at 97% as of Wednesday evening.
The news of mitigation measures frustrated and baffled some local restaurateurs like Rhienna McClain, owner of 1776 Restaurant in Crystal Lake.
“I cannot survive on curbside,” McClain said. “Most people can’t.”
Several city and county officials said they sympathized with bar and restaurants owners, but warned that anyone in violation of the new rules could face consequences from the state level.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett said the city will play the role of an educator rather than an enforcer when it comes to mitigation violations.
“In this role, complaints received by the municipality, including the McHenry Police Department, will be limited to verbal counseling to a business owner/manager on observed violations,” Jett said in the post. “If compliance is not obtained, the complaint will be forwarded to the McHenry County health department for further investigation and/or enforcement and no further action will be taken by the municipality.”
Although the city of McHenry will not issue citations for liquor, gaming or other business violation under the governor’s order, “enforcement methods may be implemented by state-level organizations at their discretion,” Jett wrote.
In Crystal Lake, Mayor Haig Haleblian said he understands that small businesses are an integral part of the community, but couldn’t say what the end result might be for businesses found in violation of the mitigation rules.
“They have to weigh the positives against the negatives and do what’s best for them,” Haleblian said.
As positivity rates increase throughout Illinois, state Rep. Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa, is urging Pritzker to call a special legislative session.
“We’re just not seeing metrics that show us that restaurants and bars are primary locations where this virus is spreading,” Weber said in an official statement emailed Wednesday. “It’s time to reconvene the Legislature and revise the mitigation plan so we ensure we are targeting the proper settings where COVID-19 is doing the most damage.”
Weber’s sentiments seem to reflect those of local bar and restaurant owners, who say dining indoors is no more dangerous than shopping at a crowded grocery store.
“I am an immunocompromised human,” McClain said. “I choose risk every day to bring people a place to celebrate, be merry (and) stay safe.”
In a joint statement issued Wednesday by a group of Illinois Republicans, state Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles,s said it’s unfair to place bars and restaurants into the same category and subject them to the same mitigation measures.
“Participating in a sit down dinner with your family versus drinking at a bar, mingling around, and standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers are vastly different activities with vastly different health risks,” DeWitte said. “So to place these activities in the same category with the same mitigation rules is simply unfair, especially to do so without providing contact tracing data that suggests these two activities result in the same outcomes.”
Pritzker’s office has released information defending the decision to target bars and restaurants, citing multiple statistics and studies that indicate spread of the respiratory virus at restaurants and bars. Among the data provided by Pritzker’s office was from in-state contact tracing data provided by Pritzker’s office which found restaurants and bars account for 2,300 of the 17,939 cases surveyed, making it second only to “other,” a category that includes vacations, family gatherings, weddings and college parties.
Contact-tracing efforts in McHenry County have been met with some opposition. People reached by county-employed contact tracers and case investigators are refusing to give information, such as the people who they had been in contact with, McHenry County Department of Health officials have said.
The IDPH will continue to monitor the positivity rate for Region 9 – the region that includes McHenry County – for the next 14 days.
If the region sustains a positivity rate below 6.5% for three consecutive days, both counties will see the increased restrictions lifted and return to Phase 4, according to the governor’s plan.
Should the region remain in the 6.5% to 8% positivity rate threshold, McHenry and Lake Counties will remain under Tier 1 mitigation restrictions.
If the region’s positivity rate were to still be at or greater than 8% after two weeks, both counties could be subject to stricter limitations under Tier 2 guidelines as was enacted in Region 1, which includes neighboring Boone and DeKalb counties.
“Wash your hands, wear a mask when you can and when you need to, and be a better human,” McClain said. “We’re in this together.”
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