Why indoor dining is the focus of COVID-19 clampdown controversy
By Saturday, all of the suburbs and Chicago will be under restrictions meant to tamp down COVID-19, including a ban on restaurants and bars serving customers indoors.
While Gov. J.B. Pritzker has warned business owners they could face fines and revocation of liquor and video gambling licenses for not complying, some have responded with outright defiance, legal maneuvering or a search for loopholes.
State health officials contend the few scientific studies on the virus show indoor drinking and dining is one of the biggest culprits in spreading the respiratory disease. Despite those warnings, restaurateurs say there's no shortage of customers willing to take the risk.
As frustration, confusion and tension mount over the decision by state leaders, here's a look at the governor's order, enforcement and how dining restrictions compare to rules for other businesses.
Is the ban on indoor dining and drinking being enforced?
Restrictions now affecting eight of the 11 public health regions are nothing new and they're not a surprise. Two regions, including one covering Will and Kankakee counties, had restrictions imposed during the summer, but many restaurants in those regions quietly defied the order and offered indoor dining anyway.
As cases surged again this month, Pritzker warned he would deploy Illinois State Police troopers to enforce the indoor dining ban.
State police Sgt. Delila Garcia said troopers have been handling "referrals and complaints" in 37 of the state's 102 counties and issued four misdemeanor citations for "violating the Illinois Department of Public Health Act" in four counties -- establishments in Bond, Madison, Macoupin and Monroe counties.
State officials were hoping for backup from local officials, but some, including Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn and Libertyville Mayor Terry Weppler, say they won't enforce the order.
"Local governments have better tools and more resources for enforcement than the blunt instruments the state has," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said. "Local officials need to put aside politics and focus on the proven public health measures that keep the people who elected them safe."
Restaurants are still allowed to offer outdoor dining, but state health officials warned that tented seating has to have at least two sides open.
How are businesses getting around the ban?
Many restaurants are abiding by the ban. Some other owners have been vocal about their plans to continue offering indoor dining in spite of the risk to diners and staff members, opening themselves up to possible spot inspections by the state police.
FoxFire in Geneva sued the state and has been granted a restraining order allowing the business to remain open. The state is appealing the ruling.
One loophole, taking dining reservations under the guise of "private events," apparently is passing muster.
Buttermilk, with restaurants in Naperville, Geneva and Vernon Hills, offers seatings at 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. each day under the auspices of "private events." This allows the restaurant to book multiple parties at various tables until there are no more than 25 people dining.
IDPH officials argue this is a "misinterpretation" of the state's guidelines for "meetings, social events and gatherings at restaurants" and could prolong a region's infection levels or cause even stricter rules.
"We've had state police come in here, and they said everything was on the up and up," said Buttermilk Naperville General Manager Isis Gauger. "We're following the rules that were provided to us."
Why don't other businesses have to stop indoor service?
While casinos have had their capacity reduced to 25%, other ther "nonessential" businesses like gyms, salons, and movie theaters may still operate at 50% capacity or with fewer than 50 people.
State health officials point to the limited scientific research on the spread of COVID-19 that shows bars and restaurants pose a higher risk. The governor's office also released a study of more than 17,000 Illinois residents who were infected with the virus in August or September. About 2,300 people, the largest group, reported working at or visiting a bar or restaurant in the 14 days before testing positive.
Critics note the study doesn't indicate where the people contracted the virus, just where they had been.
Health clubs appeared in the state study as locations where 232 infected people had visited before becoming ill. Salons, theaters and casinos were not listed among the 25 categories.
Why not provide incentives for businesses to go along?
There are grants available to businesses that are financially hurt by the pandemic.
Small-business owners can apply for Business Interruption Grants offered through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity at illinois.gov/dceo. Requirements are listed there as well.
The state has $220 million to distribute to thousands of applicants, who would receive varying amounts.
Business owners say the problem is there are no guarantees an application will be approved and no timeline for distributing the funds.
Another wrinkle in the grant program is that funds have been earmarked for specific types of small businesses or in specific geographic areas of the state, which could also affect a business owner's chances of securing one.