Tighter restrictions aimed at countering the spread of the coronavirus across the Sauk Valley likely won't be matched with stricter enforcement efforts, public health officials said this week.
The enhanced clampdowns, which take effect Saturday, were announced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday, after Region 1's seven-day average of positive cases was 8% or higher for three consecutive days.
Under the harsher rules, no indoor service will be allowed at bars or restaurants, reservations will be required, and all outdoor service must conclude by 11 p.m.
Patrons will also be prohibited from ordering or waiting at the bar, and all indoor gatherings must be limited to 25 guests or 25% of overall room capacity.
But as of Thursday, it wasn't clear to officials with the Carroll, Lee and Whiteside County Health Departments whether ensuring businesses comply with the resurgence mitigations will continue to depend on emergency rules proposed by the Illinois Department of Public Health during the summer.
"[Enforcement] is really not a fun thing for us by any means, especially because we have close relationships with these businesses — we're the ones permitting and licensing them," Lee County Health Department Administrator Cathy Ferguson-Allen said. "But we have to back-up the mitigations put forth by the state, that's our job."
Ferguson-Allen, along with Carroll County Health Department Administrator Craig Beintema and Whiteside County Health Department Administrator Cheryl Lee, said unless the IDPH or Pritzker say otherwise, enforcement tools will remain directed by the emergency rules.
Under the rules, OK'd in August by a legislative panel that oversees the state's administrative rulemaking, businesses found to be out of compliance will first be given a written "non-compliance" warning.
A second offense can result in an "order to disperse," which requires some or all of a business' patrons to leave the premises as needed to comply with health guidelines.
If businesses refuse to comply after that, they can receive a Class A Misdemeanor notice and be subject to a fine ranging from $75 to $2,500.
A county sheriff or state's attorney might also get involved in enforcement if an individual continuously rejects complying with restrictions at a business.
Potential violations are typically reported to the health department by customers or people who enter a business, Lee said.
"We follow-up on every complaint, and most of them turn-out to be invalid," Lee said, adding that the suspected violation, like an employee not wearing a mask, must be observed while an inspector is at the business.
According to data obtained by Sauk Valley Media, the Whiteside County Health Department responded to 29 complaints in August and at least seven complaints in September.
None of the complaints were substantiated, meaning the department has not issued a non-compliance warning or an order to disperse since the IDPH rules were put in place.
Lee said the purpose of the enforcement rules is not to be punitive.
"Local businesses took a loss early on and they still can't function at their fullest level," Lee said. "There are lots of things they need to put in place to be in compliance, but that's something we try to help them with, rather than punish them for. "
Health department officials responding to a complaint start by educating a business owner about the requirements, and if they're found to be out of compliance after the initial visit, Lee said, then an official might issue a warning.
"But that hasn't happened yet," Lee said.
That has largely been the case in Carroll and Lee Counties, where Beintema and Ferguson-Allen both said their departments have not issued a single warning or dispersal order because they also have had success with the education strategy.
"The educational approach is always the first approach," Ferguson-Allen said. "We tell business owners that even if it is painful right now, at least it will prevent spread and further negative effects."
But businesses' and individuals' compliance with the enhanced mitigations will need to be especially consistent if the region, which had a positvity rate of 8.2% on Thursday, expects to return to normal Phase 4 restrictions.
For that to happen, its positivity rate must average at most 6.5% for three consecutive days. If the rate increases or remains at 8% in the next two weeks, even more restraints could be implemented.
That directive was the result of a 30-minute virtual meeting Wednesday between the region's public health departments and IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike, despite their pushes for a more localized mitigation approach and a collective emphasis on how the restrictions would disproportionately affect restaurants and businesses, the three administrators said.
Beintema said he expressed concern to Ezike that although confirmed cases could be traced back to bars and restaurants, they aren't the sole spreaders of the virus and shouldn't be the subject of the enhanced mitigations.
"What about all these instances of large gatherings, with hundreds of people, like receptions and parties?" Beintema said. "Those seem like larger issues than bars and restaurants that have been complying with the rules for the last few months."
Beintema added that he expects enforcement could be a problem starting Saturday because bar and restaurant owners might have a sense of "we did exactly what you told us to do...and now you're messing with our livelihoods."
Ferguson-Allen said she felt like Ezike listened to the administrators' concerns, but pointed to the region that includes Will and Kankakee counties, which reverted to tougher rules but returned to Phase 4 restrictions after the positivity rate decreased.
"She said that she's confident the harsher efforts will work," Ferguson-Allen said. "When they've been tried in other regions, the rates went down."
But the first region to have its reopening efforts scaled back, the Metro East region outside St. Louis, still does not have indoor bar or dining bar service, and its seven-day test positivity rate remains above 6.5%.
Beintema said that difference between the status of the closed regions shows why, regardless of enforcement efforts, businesses in one county of a region shouldn't be treated the same as businesses in another county.
"Carroll County or Whiteside County is not the same as the other counties in the region," Beintema said. "A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn't work here."