McHenry County Board to consider giving health department more teeth with COVID-19 enforcement

County could see stricter mitigation measures as soon as this weekend as resurgence of virus continues

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McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks called upon the McHenry County Department of Health Thursday to figure out what they would need to enforce COVID-19 mitigation measures more effectively and draft up a resolution to be considered at Tuesday's County Board meeting.

As a resurgence of the virus continues and accelerates in McHenry County and across the state, Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson told board members that the health department is struggling with enforcing the new mitigation measures placed on the county by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"I would like to know what you would suggest so you would have more teeth in order to enforce these things if the other entities are not willing to do so," Franks said at Thursday's Committee of the Whole meeting. "And, heck, we can get one done by Tuesday if we have it drafted today, we could put it on [the board's agenda] tomorrow."

In August, the Illinois General Assembly approved three-tiered enforcement guidelines to help local health departments and other entities enforce the state's business safety protocols on face masks and social distancing. But with the state's Tier 1 mitigation measures, which include a ban on indoor dining, the legal guidance is not quite as clear, Adamson said.

This has resulted in a relatively slow, underresourced response by the health department as local municipalities and law enforcement agencies shy away from sharing the burden of enforcement, Adamson said.

"While we are the primary authority, there are other authorities that could take measures that might be faster like pulling somebody's liquor license or pulling their business permit. ... That's not something that we have the authority to do," she said.

The time to expedite the enforcement process is long overdue, Franks said in the meeting, a sentiment which board members Kelli Wegener, Michael Vijuk, Suzanne Ness and Paula Yensen, all Democrats, agreed with.

Board member Chris Christensen, a Republican, said people also are getting COVID-19 at their homes, not just at restaurants, "so unless you're going to start legislating that, I think you're just penalizing one group of citizenry."

"I don't know how you're going to sit there and pick and choose the winners and losers," he said.

McHenry County's average test positivity rate was over 20% as of Thursday, Adamson said. The county's case count has seen a 79% increase since she gave her last update to board members on Oct. 15, increasing from 5,250 to 9,442 cases, she said.

"We are moving in the wrong direction, we have been and it's rapidly increasing," she said.

Region 9, which encompasses McHenry and Lake counties, has seen ten days of positivity rate increases and ten days of increases in hospital admissions because of COVID-19, Adamson said.

As the region's positivity rate remains well above the IDPH's safety threshold of 8%, McHenry County and its neighbor to the east could move to Tier 2 of additional mitigation measures as soon as next week, she said.

"It takes 14 days, so two weeks total, to kick into the next mitigations so we could be faced, should this trajectory continue, with tier 2 mitigations," Adamson said, adding that the state could order a transition to tier 2 "if not by this weekend, potentially by next week."

Nearly all of the county's schools have now transitioned back to remote learning in accordance with a recommendation from the health department.

"You're going to see the cases first, then people start to get ill and then you start to see the push on the hospitals," Adamson said. "Some states have already reached their capacity so that is something that we may be facing here."

The county's hospital bed availability was at 36% as of Thursday and the percentage of residents willing to comply with contact tracing has dwindled to 64%, Public Health Nursing Director Susan Karras said in the meeting Thursday.

Given all of this, Franks told Adamson and Karras to brainstorm what they will need from the board to gain compliance more efficiently and to come back with a proposal by the end of the day Friday so that the board can consider it at their regular meeting Tuesday evening.

"I would support any measures that we have to do to save people's lives,"s Wegener said. "You mentioned pulling liquor licenses, cease and desist orders. If we can have an accelerated process to do any of these things, I think it would be a good idea."

The health department has been working with Norm Vinton of the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office in taking the third enforcement step of issuing fines to restaurants that won't comply with the indoor dining ban and in deciding how to respond to lawsuits that restaurants have filed against Gov. JB Pritzker's orders, Adamson said in Thursday's update.

The McHenry County health department's environmental division is preparing to send over documents on one business to the State's Attorney's Office for consideration of charges, the first business to be considered for actual punitive action.

"We will review every case on a case-by-case basis for prosecution," Vinton said. "We have not received anything yet, but when we do we'll certainly review it."

According to the state's enforcement guidelines, charges against this business could include a Class A misdemeanor resulting in a fine ranging from $75 to $2,500. It will be up to the State's Attorney's Office to determine whether these charges could apply to a violation of the new ban on indoor service as well.

The fault for this lack of compliance in the face of a sharp resurgence of the virus does not just lie with the restaurants that disobey the orders or the municipalities that look the other way, but also with the people who patronize those restaurants, Vinton said.

There are "dozens, if not hundreds" of restaurants in noncompliance and all have customers who support them in that decision, he said.

"I think a lot of people have let their guard down," Adamson said. "But this is how the disease is spreading and it is spreading at a very rapid pace."

In a COVID-19 update Thursday afternoon, Pritzker said that, if cases continue increasing at the current rate, another stay-at-home order may be the only option left.

Pritzker criticized local elected officials who have failed to enforce the state's mitigations.

"What will it take to make this real for you?" Pritzker said. "Do we have to reach a positivity rate of 50% like we're seeing in Iowa today? 50%? Are you waiting for health care workers to get sick to the point where you don't have enough staff in the hospital to cover the next shift? Because I promise you, while you failed to take responsibility in your city or your county, that day is coming closer, and it will be on you."