An estimated 90% of restaurants and bars in some neighboring counties are not complying with the ban on indoor service handed down with Gov. JB Pritzker’s increased COVID-19 restrictions aimed at controlling the resurgence of the virus, according to the McHenry County Department of Health.
In a Board of Health meeting Monday, Director of Environmental Health Patricia Nomm said noncompliance among food businesses, in particular the ban on indoor seating, has been increasing in McHenry County and across the region.
“Most of the departments in the region are escalating the enforcement process, starting with some type of formal or educational warning, a visit, a citation, et cetera,” she said. “Their staff is experiencing some negative reactions as you can imagine, some heckling, some pushback, things like that.”
This has resurfaced the question of how the McHenry County health department should go about enforcing mitigation measures while still being sensitive to the plight of struggling businesses.
Many municipalities in McHenry County have said they will not enforce complaints about noncompliance themselves but will instead forward them onto the local health department.
Since the new measures went into effect in McHenry County, the health department received three complaints over the weekend and about 15 complaints on Monday alone, Nomm said.
On Saturday, when restaurants were first supposed to cease indoor dining, many restaurants across the county announced their intention to stay open, and customers still dined in.
These restaurants included McHenry’s Windhill Pancake Parlor, Andy’s Restaurant in Crystal Lake, Papa G’s in Huntley and The Double Yolk in Woodstock, among others.
Some restaurants have even entered into lawsuits to resist the orders, although their requests for immediate emergency injunctions were denied Friday by McHenry County judges.
Before Saturday, the health department had responded to 345 complaints of food-related businesses not following guidelines around masks and social distancing since the start of Phase 3 of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan in June, Nomm said.
Of those, 138 responses found no violations of the guidelines when staff were present. A total of 32 “notices of noncompliance” have been issued and three “notices to disperse” have been issued, meaning some or all patrons were asked to leave an establishment, she said.
The health department has not issued any fines or taken any legal action against businesses in noncompliance, she said.
The environmental division has noticed a change in the source of noncompliance complaints since the ban on indoor seating went into effect, she said.
Before, complaints typically came from residents who went into an establishment and felt unsafe or drove by a seemingly overcrowded parking lot, she said. Now, the division has been receiving more complaints from other business owners who say they are following the new ban while others are not.
Argtim Shabani, owner of Triple Berry Cafe in Crystal Lake, which is staying open to indoor dining, said he doesn’t want to break the rules, but he saw that a lot of other businesses were serving customers indoors around him. That cemented his own decision to also do so.
“I don’t want to be in trouble,” Shabani said. “I don’t want to go to court, but I’m risking it for my for my own good to survive and I’m risking it for the employees also.”
Although many restaurants are not complying with the governor’s orders, Lynn Manna, the owner of Metalwood Grille in McHenry, said they are offering takeout, carryout, delivery and are getting igloo tents for outdoor dining. But since Saturday, they’ve been closed to indoor dining.
On Wednesday, Manna told the Northwest Herald that business was more than 50% slower than it usually is.
“It’s discouraging as an owner,” she said. “There’s a lot of people here that have to pay their bills, and this is their full-time job. ... I’m trying to keep everybody afloat.”
Manna only recently took over the Metalwood Grille, and her status as a new business owner is why she wants to comply with the governor’s orders.
“Being that I’m only three months or four months into my business, I don’t want to start breaking rules,” Manna said. “Being that I’m so new, I don’t want to rock the boat.”
However, she harbors no ill will toward restaurants that have indoor dining, as they’re “all in it together.”
“I support every restaurant owner,” Manna said. “I respect the fact that they’re trying...I know how hard everybody’s trying because nobody wants to shut their door.”
After speaking with the health departments of counties that have been under increased mitigation measures for longer, Nomm said they reported receiving up to 120 complaints each week, which the McHenry County health department currently is not equipped to handle.
McHenry County Board of Health President William Stinson said the health department should not enforce the new measures strictly, as he felt the economic consequences outweigh the health risks.
“To be a real stickler for the rules, in that context, especially when these businesses are suffering and we’re going to use the power of government to smash them into compliance, for a disease that has turned out to have a low mortality overall, may not be a fabulous plan,” Stinson said.
Board member Ted Lorenc disagreed, saying that every potential death because of COVID-19 is worth trying to prevent.
“No level of preventable mortality is acceptable,” Lorenc said. “So when you talk about a 1% mortality, I don’t care. It’s more than zero. ... This is a potentially preventable condition from which almost a quarter of a million people have died already.”
After a lengthy executive session, the McHenry County Board of Health passed a motion Monday asking the department to consult the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois
Attorney General's Office on whether to seek dismissal from lawsuits filed by local restaurants against the new mitigation measures or remain involved.
Chief Norm Vinton of the McHenry County State’s Attorney Civil Division told board members this would be a difficult case to win for the health department.
The board also directed the health department to double down on disseminating information around how to comply with COVID-19 mitigation measures.