STERLING – The city’s top official has called on county authorities to back up local deployment of enforcement measures, such as seeking closure orders and bringing misdemeanor charges, on businesses that consistently fail to comply with enhanced coronavirus mitigations.
Mayor Skip Lee made that petition for reinforcement – his most assertive since Whiteside County was placed under Tier 1 resurgence mitigations Oct. 3 and moved to Tier 2 resurgence mitigations Oct. 25 – during an afternoon news conference in Oct.30.
The city will be “examining” the liquor licenses of businesses “flagrantly disregarding the rules,” and the Sterling Police Department will “vigorously work to enforce the guidelines and respond to calls,” Lee said.
But those actions can only have a meaningful effect if Whiteside County State’s Attorney Terry Costello and the Whiteside County Board “aggressively support” them, Lee said.
“The County Board must empower the health department to enforce these regulations and recommendations,” Lee said. “The Whiteside County state’s attorney must aggressively back law enforcement to act in this battle, as is happening in other counties.”
Without the support of county leadership, Lee said, municipalities will not be successful in slowing the spread of the virus and saving lives.
“Now is not the time to stand on the sidelines and play constitutional word games,” Lee said. “We are at the point now where we need to be all in.”
Under the additional resurgence mitigations, bars and restaurants must now limit the parties at outdoor tables to six guests while continuing to prohibit indoor dining and drinking, close before 11 p.m., and practice social distancing.
Lee said Costello has outlined a procedure for enforcing the wearing of face coverings in public based on a set of Illinois Department of Public Health emergency guidelines adopted by a legislative rule-making panel in August.
But Lee said he is “imploring” Costello to apply that same procedure to ensure patrons’ compliance at businesses.
“The bottom line is, law enforcement or the health department, no one can take enforcement measures unless the state’s attorney is willing to back them up,” Lee said.
Costello could not immediately be reached Friday afternoon for clarification.
He did say in an email last week that his office would handle any potential violations of the emergency regulations the same as any other case.
“Should any law enforcement agency forward a criminal complaint and report regarding an alleged violation of that section, it would be reviewed for prosecution the same as any other case that law enforcement submits to my office for prosecution,” Costello said in an email.
Under the IDPH emergency regulations, county health departments function as the first layer of enforcement, typically relying on a complaint-based system to investigate businesses.
After a person submits a complaint, a health department inspector will call or visit the business to share information on the guidelines.
When a second complaint is received, health department staff visits the business. If an inspector observes a violation of the guidelines – such as employees not wearing face coverings or enforcing social distancing of patrons – then the inspector issues a written noncompliance warning.
The warning identifies the violation and directs the business to amend it by a certain date.
If a business fails to rectify the noncompliance or fails to comply with another guideline, health department officials may order it to have some or all of the people on its premises leave.
A business that does not comply after three noncompliance warnings could have its food permit or liquor license pulled, and it will be referred to the state’s attorney for an injunction order to close.
A business that does not comply with an order to disperse could be hit with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
Law enforcement might only be used to serve a business with the misdemeanor citation, but any further prosecution depends on a county state’s attorney.
Lee said he couldn’t speak to whether Whiteside County Sheriff John Booker would encourage his deputies to enforce the guidelines, but called on him to support the city’s enforcement measures nonetheless.
In a phone call, Booker said he’s committed to following up with every complaint his department receives related to potential violations and that he has directed his deputies to enforce the face covering mandate outlined in the IDPH emergency regulations.
“In terms of the mitigations, the emergency rule doesn’t say anything about indoor dining at bars and restaurants,” Booker said. “So I can only enforce what I have the power to enforce under the emergency rules.”
Booker added that the sheriff’s office doesn’t hold primary jurisdiction in the city of Sterling or any other city in Whiteside County, meaning that local enforcement falls to local police forces.
“If the state’s attorney needs us to enforce something, we’ll do what we can,” Booker said. “But if the mayor needs enforcement, he has the power to direct his city’s police force, not ours.”