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Defiance Against Pritzker's COVID Orders Growing Among Central Illinois Mayors

(AP Photo/LM Otero)
A sign announces the status of a closed burger eatery in Dallas, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.

More mayors in central Illinois say they won't enforce Gov. JB Pritzker's new COVID-19 restrictions shutting down indoor service at restaurants and bars, as frustration grows with the economic damage wreaked on small businesses by the pandemic.

Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman said the village won't be enforcing the order set to go into effect Wednesday in Region 2. Kaufman said he doesn't believe state law grants local municipalities the authority to enforce the orders.

"Everyone in the community has the right to decide how they feel about going into a restaurant with indoor dining," Kaufman said. "There will be no more declarations by the mayor of Morton. We are allowing the public to decide for themselves."

Kaufman received a round of applause after reading that statement aloud at Monday's village board meeting.

Bartonville Mayor Leon Ricca said while he strongly encourages business owners and individuals to adhere to the governor's orders, the village will take no action to enforce them unless compelled to do so by a court order, or at the request of Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos.

Ricca also advised any business bucking the governor's COVID-19 orders to consult with their own legal counsel.

Bartonville's village board is convening a special public meeting Wednesday night at Limestone Community High School to discuss the new COVID-19 rules.

Roanoke Village Board President Michael Smith said his community won't enforce the rules unless lawfully ordered to do so by a Woodford County official.

Both Woodford County State's Attorney Greg Minger and Sheriff Matt Smith have previously said they don't recognized Pritzker's executive orders as having the force of law behind them. That's also been the position of Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower. In Peoria County and the City of Peoria, officials have largely adopted a complaint-driven approach to compliance actions.

In Henry County, Kewanee Mayor Gary Moore said his city also won't enforce the new restrictions.

"It is my opinion the businesses being targeted by the shutdowns are some of the easiest to mitigate COVID-19 concerns by sanitizing between customers, control of numbers of inside customers, and due diligence to social distancing," Moore said.

And in Knox County, Galesburg Mayor John Pritchard said he doesn't favor enforcing the order because he doesn't believe it will have a major impact on halting the spread of COVID-19 in his community.

Randy Hovind, the Galesburg fire chief and head of the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, said much of the local coronavirus spread happens at small gatherings. Pritchard said only one outbreak of the 22 documented in the county has been traced back to a dining establishment--and that outbreak involved only two people who tested positive.

"Indoor dinings and bars are not much of a problem," Pritchard said.

And unlike in March when the stay-at-home order was implemented, Pritchard said safety net protections like the Paycheck Protection Program aren't around to blunt the financial blow for small businesses.

"As a practical matter, the governor's order is a cure that is much worse than the situation, in terms of dining," Pritchard said.

The mayors of Washburn and Princeton also said they don't plan to enforce the new business and gathering restrictions.

But Pritzker said he expects local officials to uphold his orders.

"If they don't do their job, we're going to end up with hospitals having to turn people away," Pritzker said during his regular COVID-19 press briefing on Tuesday. "And that's just not something that I find acceptable."

Pritzker said the restrictions implemented are based on vetted medical studies he's provided to numerous elected officials and media outlets upon request--and necessary to avoid a "nightmare" situation where people can't get treatment.

"Local officials who are not doing the right thing are the ones who are going to be responsible for the rates of infections going through the roof, and our hospitals getting overrun, and people dying, if they don't enforce the rules. That's why those rules exist," Pritzker said.

As of Tuesday, Region 2 had a seven-day rolling COVID-19 positivity rate of 9.9%. The new "enhanced mitigations" were imposed Sunday after the region posted positivity rates over 8% for three consecutive days. Region 2 stretches from the Quad Cities to Bloomington-Normal, and also includes Peoria, Pekin, Canton, Galesburg, and LaSalle-Peru.

"I think the bar and restaurant closures, they're going to have an impact," said Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson. "How significant that impact will only be seen as time goes on. The thing to remember is it's not just dependent on bars and restaurants. It's overall."

Locally, the Tri-County region reported its 150th death linked to the novel coronavirus on Tuesday. The region has recorded 9,203 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic first struck central Illinois back in March. Ninety-six people are currently hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Tri-County area's four major hospitals; 30 of those patients are in intensive care.

Hendrickson said while the "gut reaction" by some might be to place the onus on bars and restaurants to get the region's numbers back down, it's ultimately up to individuals to take the necessary steps to bring the region out of mitigations, like wearing face coverings, social distancing, and handwashing frequently.

"Our bars and restaurants can do everything perfectly well, but if, as a community, we're not supporting them by also doing those steps in private gatherings and workplaces, then that's where you're going to see we're moving backwards, too."

But even among some elected officials who say they'll uphold the order, there's skepticism and questioning of Pritzker's rationale on these restrictions.

"We're not coming out like East Peoria and doing anything silly like that, but I'm really disappointed," said Washington Mayor Gary Manier. "To only go after bars and restaurants...I just have a hard time believing that restaurants and bars are the only businesses spreading this disease."

East Peoria was the first community in the area to declare it wouldn't enforce the COVID-19 guidelines. That city has adopted its own, more laissez-faire approach to the COVID-19 pandemic before. East Peoria also implemented its own reopening plan back in May while the stay-at-home order was still in effect, though few businesses actually adopted it due to overriding state licensing concerns.

Tazewell County Health Department Administrator Amy Fox directly rebutted East Peoria Mayor John Kahl on Monday, asserting the mitigations work to tamp down COVID-19 positivity rates.

"Denying that COVID-19 is real, disregarding the mitigations and ignoring strong public health guidance for safety only makes COVID worsen in our community and does nothing to get us back to normal or slow infection in our community," Fox wrote in a missive.

But Kahl said he's not convinced.

"We clearly have a difference of opinion on the additional restrictions being placed on select businesses in the coming days," Kahl later said of Fox's remarks.

For his part, Pritzker said the mitigations he's implementing in all 11 regions statewide now were effective in tamping down coronavirus positivity rates in the Metro East and Will and Kankakee counties earlier in the fall--and he said he believes they will work again.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.