The first McHenry County business to be charged with a civil misdemeanor for refusing to wear face masks will make its first appearance in court Thursday afternoon after months of run-ins with the McHenry County Department of Health over alleged violations of COVID-19 mandates.
While it remains unclear how Crystal Lake Health Food Store will plead Thursday, the health department’s attorney said if the case does go to trial, he does not see it as a difficult one for the county to win.
“I mean they’re standing on their principal that they don’t want to have their people be required a mask up or their customers to mask up, but I think that it’s a pretty strong case” for the health department, McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office Civil Division Chief Norm Vinton said.
Multiple attempts to reach the attorney for the business and Crystal Lake Health Food Store manager Dave Childress were unsuccessful.
In a statement provided Dec. 16 to the Northwest Herald, Childress said, “We welcome all in our store and we are especially mindful of personal and medical freedoms,” Childress said. “We allow our employees and customers to make their own decisions regarding health.”
If the business is found to be guilty of the misdemeanor charge, they will be subject to a fine ranging from $75 to $2,500.
The health department visited the health food store at least five times between July 1 and Nov. 21 and issued four written violation notices and a cease and desist order before notice to appear in court was filed on Dec. 14, according to complaint file documents obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Read the documents here.
Over this period of time, the department received at least three complaints from residents alleging staff were not using face coverings. Each written notice provided to the store reported violations for not requiring staff to wear masks, not requiring customers to wear masks and not posting proper signage instructing people to wear masks while on the premises, according to the documents.
Vinton said the management of Crystal Lake Health Food Store was very open about the fact that they did not plan to start requiring face masks any time soon.
“To their credit, they’ve been very upfront about what they’re going to do and not going to do,” he said.
In the health department’s first visit to the store on July 1, one employee said she had a health condition that prevented her from wearing a face mask safely and was instructed to wear a face shield.
During the last visit on Nov. 21, Childress reiterated to the health department that he refuses to wear a face mask but said he put up a sign at the door telling customers that the county and the Illinois Department of Public Health encourage customers and staff to do so, according to the documents.
McHenry County Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson sent a cease-and-desist order July 6, warning the store that a failure to fix their actions could result in “further action including suspension of your health permit to operate and/or legal action against you.”
The store responded with a cease-and-desist order of their own, a scathing letter written by down-state attorney Thomas DeVore.
The letter asked that health department officials never contact the business again “unless such measures are expressly provided for by law” and argued that the Illinois Department of Public Health Act does not give them the authority to close the store in this case.
“Please be advised, you are hereby put on notice, that if your department takes action against our client the same will be met with quick and decisive legal action against the department as well as any individual public officials specifically participating,” the conclusion of the letter reads.
When the letter came across Vinton’s desk, he said he did not give much thought to it.
“In all candor, we gave it very little credence,” he said. “It wouldn’t matter what he said. We’re not going to take some lawyer sending our health department a cease-and-desist letter and go, ‘Oh, we have to stop doing what we’re doing.’ Not going to happen.”
The steps taken by the health department align with enforcement guidelines that were provided to health authorities and law enforcement agencies by the Governor’s Office in August and, shortly thereafter, were approved by an Illinois General Assembly committee, Vinton said.
The enforcement guidelines only apply to COVID-19 rules on face masks and social distancing, the two rules that have been adopted as part of the Illinois Department of Public Health Act in Section 690.50.
“I think the health department has done a nice job as far as putting their investigation together on the violations and taking the steps that are laid out in the [enforcement rules],” Vinton said. “I think it’s a strong case.”
If the health food store decides to plead not guilty Thursday, it could request a jury trial if it thinks that would be more advantageous for them, Vinton said.
The McHenry County health department will be represented by Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Goodman, who has been handing all cases having to do with COVID-19 violations by local food businesses, Vinton said.
Vinton said Tuesday that the State’s Attorney’s Office had not heard from Crystal Lake Health Foods as to whether DeVore would be representing them on Thursday.
The store’s first court appearance is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the McHenry County Courthouse in Woodstock.