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Chillicothe May Relax COVID Restriction Enforcement, As Businesses Face Legal Repercussions

Chillicothe may consider rolling back its enforcement of Gov. JB Pritzker's COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants and bars next month.

The Track Inn and Banana's Beach Bar popped up on the city council's public safety committee agenda Tuesday evening after repeated citations for permitting indoor dining that is banned under the governor's Tier 3 mitigations.

Chillicothe's city code currently considers a violation of the governor's executive orders an ordinance violation.

City Attorney Michael Seghetti said the Track Inn was first cited in November under city code for employees and customers not wearing face coverings, and a lack of social distancing. Banana's was cited for similar reasons in December.

After additional citations, the cases were referred to the Peoria City/County Health Department and the Peoria County State's Attorney's Office. Seghetti said the health department also hasn't gained compliance with the executive orders.

"The Track Inn case is on the state's attorney's desk, along with a handful of other complaints," said Seghetti.

He said most cases are resolved before getting to the prosecutorial level. Fewer than 10 establishments throughout the county haven't complied with the health department's requests.

"The state's attorney is deciding whether she is going to go forward and prosecute those violations," Seghetti said.

The health department and state's attorney's office have declined to disclose the names of noncompliant businesses, citing ongoing investigations. A Freedom of Information Act request for those names filed with the health department by WCBU was denied on similar grounds.

For his part, Kevin Callahan, co-owner of the Track Inn, said he can't afford to keep the doors open on carryout dining alone.

"I just wish you would leave us alone and let us do what we've gotta do," Callahan said. "We're just trying to make a living. That's all we're trying to do."

Callahan acknowledged his customers don't wear masks when they're eating, but said all of his employees regularly wear face coverings, with the exception of his cooks and himself.

He said it's too hot in the kitchen for the cooks to mask up. And for his own part, he said he doesn't have to wear a face mask in his own business, but will put it on if a customer is uncomfortable.

And Tiffany Nagel, the owner of Banana's, said her business practices mask wearing, social distancing, and frequent sanitizing.

"I implore you, think about what's best for the town, not what's best for the governor," Nagel said.

But under the current mitigations, committee chairman Gary Sharp said indoor dining in any form isn't permitted, regardless of the other precautions being taken.

"He has the legal right to do these orders because of the statute, which gives the governor a right to produce an order or a law anytime he wants during an emergency," Sharp said.

"Just because we have to make a ruling doesn't mean we agree with the governor of the state of Illinois," he added.

But Callahan said that was a false dilemma.

"You have the choice to leave us alone. You have the choice to leave Banana's alone. You have no legal responsibility to do this. And shame on all of you for doing anything other than that," he said.

The entire state has been under the stringent Tier 3 mitigations since Nov. 20. Region 2 that includes the Peoria area was moved from Tier 1 restrictions, which permitted limited indoor dining, straight to Tier 3, which prohibits it.

The region currently meets all Illinois Department of Public Health requirements outlined to return to some lighter restrictions, though numbers still remain higher than public health officials are comfortable with in Peoria and Tazewell counties.

Callahan argued Chillicothe wouldn't be the first community to buck the governor if it chooses to change course and adopt a path similar to East Peoria, which isn't enforcing the orders.

More than 100 people attended the meeting virtually or in person. All but one public commenter was in support of non-enforcement of the governor's orders.

That position also appeared to hold sway with some alderman, like Dean Braun.

"Most of it was about being in compliance with the state of Illinois," Braun said of the decision early on in the pandemic to enforce the governor's orders through city code. "But having seen what it's doing to our communities, I'm ready to take the risk of reversing it and moving forward to keep our community alive and thriving."

But the proposition posed a conundrum for other aldermen, like Sharp.

"I do not want the Track Inn to go under. Or any other business in this town," he said. "I feel that way. But I also feel, I don't want to be a lawbreaker. So it's a dilemma."

The Chillicothe City Council is likely to take up a potential repeal of the city code portion of its ordinance at its February meeting.

The Track Inn's first court hearing over the city code violations is set for later this month, though it could be dropped if the city repeals the ordinance.

A judge could assess fines of $750 a day, or even issue a court order demanding the two businesses comply the current city code, and thus, the governor's orders. The process winding through the state's attorney's office after noncompliance with health department directives is separate from the local code violation issue.

"You all don't seem to realize how legit the idea we're going to close is," Callahan said. "You don't seem to understand. If we close our doors, guys, we're done. We're not talking about 'we'll suffer.' We're done."

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WCBU will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WCBU can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.