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Who enforces COVID rules in Illinois? It depends on which political party is in control.
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Who enforces COVID rules in Illinois? It depends on which political party is in control.

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When the St. Clair County Health Department shut down Reifschneider's Grill & Grape in Freeburg last week for violating a statewide ban on indoor dining, its other location less than 20 miles away in Monroe County remained open.

The reason? The two counties — one controlled by Democrats and the other by Republicans — have different approaches to enforcing COVID-19 restrictions.

In a crackdown last week, Democratic-led St. Clair County yanked liquor and food licenses for seven bars and restaurants that still welcomed customers indoors. Monroe County, under GOP control, relies solely on education. It has not closed or suspended any businesses.

"I think everybody's in the same boat," said John Wagner, administrator of the Monroe County Health Department. "(Health departments) are just trying to get what compliance we can by education."

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has put the onus on local officials to carry out his executive orders. But just as COVID-19 is politically polarizing at the national level, questions about enforcement are enmeshed in local politics.

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As hospitals fill up and public health officials worry about fallout from Thanksgiving gatherings, compliance has become ever more important to prevent severe illness and death, health officials say. But the warnings are often ignored by businesses.

Continued indoor dining and crowded bars will likely only worsen an expected holiday surge in cases. In Metro East St. Louis, doctors were spending hours calling hospitals as far as Chicago to find room for extremely sick patients.

"There are no ICU beds left," said Clinton County Health Department spokeswoman Louise McMinn. "It's just overall very concerning especially moving into the holiday season. We're not sure what it's going to look like."

But Tom DeVore, a Bond County attorney who represents restaurants that want to remain open, said punitive action, including tickets from Illinois State Police, has "no merit."

"To prohibit indoor dining is tantamount to an order of closure of that building premises, making it off limits to the public. Section 2 of the Illinois Department of Public Health Act specifically requires a court order, or the agreement of the owner, to make that happen. So, these citations that are issued are completely without any support of the law and they have no merit and they shouldn't have been issued."

But the governor's executive orders didn't actually require restaurants to close to the public. Because they can still offer outdoor service, takeout and delivery, DeVore's argument doesn't apply, the Sangamon County state's attorney successfully argued in a case involving a central Illinois restaurant, Capitol Fax reported.

Despite possibly contributing to spreading the virus, restaurants know state's attorneys will likely decline to prosecute tickets from state police for violating the indoor dining ban. Health departments hesitate to go beyond education, and local police feel it's difficult to enforce an executive order that isn't enshrined in state statute.

The breakdown of local authority threatens to render the governor's orders moot in Republican-led counties as health experts make desperate pleas with the public to stay at home.

"We don't really have anyone backing us on the health department level," McMinn said.

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Police and COVID-19 rules

Convincing businesses to comply with statewide COVID-19 restrictions was easier before owners figured out there are few financial or legal consequences for flouting them, depending on the political leanings of local authority.

Before state police began ticketing restaurants for violating a ban on indoor dining, there was at least some uncertainty about enforcement.

"Before, we had some compliance because they were scared," Wagner said.

The Monroe County state's attorney declined to prosecute when Illinois State Police ticketed Washy's Saloon in Waterloo. The same went for the Madison County state's attorney with Fast Eddie's Bon-Air in Alton and with The Fainting Goat locations in Pocahontas in Bond County and Breese in Clinton County.

On his last day on the job, former Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons, a Democrat, filed to dismiss the Fast Eddie's citation. His successor, Republican Tom Haine, declined to say whether he will prosecute six other pending COVID-related cases before he completes a review of the citations.

Gibbons did not return a phone call seeking comment, but the Monroe County public health administrator said state's attorneys feel they don't have enough legal standing, nor do health department leaders.

"The problem is the executive branch, the governor's branch, does not make laws," Wagner said. "It's much easier to enforce if the legislators get involved."

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If the General Assembly had passed a law early in the pandemic to back up the governor's executive orders — which have been so far unsuccessfully challenged in courts — it could have made it easier for police to enforce, said Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven.

"Our state of Illinois House and Senate could have solved this problem months ago by doing exactly what my city council did," Keeven said.

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Edwardsville is one of few cities statewide where city council passed its own ordinance to empower its police department. The ordinance allows police to ticket violators of a city mask mandate. Without it, police had little recourse aside from education.

"Even if we were to follow suit with state police and (enforce) some of those health department rules, if the state's attorney is not going to prosecute them, it makes no sense," Keeven said.

It's a different story in St. Clair County.

The health department had support from the county board, sheriff and state's attorney in their crackdown last week. Still, ordering a business to shutter is the last resort after education and verbal and written warnings, said health department Executive Director Barb Hohlt.

"We don't want to be punitive, but we want to protect the public's health," Hohlt said Sunday during a news briefing.

The Alton Police Department has also enforced the governor's restrictions. It issued a citation to Hiram's Tavern in April for remaining open during a stay-at-home order. The owner pleaded guilty, paid a fine and the bar will be under supervision for a year.

But there's not much appetite among local Republican-led governments to pass their own resolutions or ordinances that could help back up police, as Edwardsville did.

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Few other counties and municipalities statewide have done so. Sangamon County passed its own orders. Relying on county rules, not the governor's executive orders, the county Health Department recently ticketed four restaurants for offering indoor dining and ordered them to stop.

When the restaurants still refused to comply, the county state's attorney filed a complaint with a Sangamon County court. The court sided with the county and ordered the restaurants to close temporarily, Capitol News Illinois reported.

Local health department powers

Health department leaders are leery of cracking down on businesses without the support of state law, the county board or the state's attorney.

"We need something solid to stand on," said Wagner, the Monroe County health administrator. "The law is too vague for us to do anything. All we're going to do is end up putting ourselves into lawsuits. ... You'll find most health departments are doing what we can to gain voluntary compliance."

Not everyone believes counties can't enforce executive orders.

"The law gives us the power to enforce those things if the businesses owners don't want to comply, and that's what's going to happen," St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern, a Democrat, said at a news briefing last week.

The "vast majority" of bars and restaurants are complying, Kern added, but the county decided to take action against bars and restaurants that refused because of limited capacity at hospitals in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

"But when people just decide they're going to defy the executive order, they're going to defy the law, they're going to say they just don't care about the general public and the welfare of the public," Kern said, "then action does take place."

Cases from bars and restaurants eventually contribute to overcrowding at hospitals, Hohlt said. Unlike in retail stores, the virus spreads faster in places where people take off their masks, eat, drink, talk and linger.

In the Metro East, 9.6% of outbreaks can be traced back to bars and restaurants, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data. Retailers only account for 1.4% of outbreaks.

Nursing homes, prisons and churches also provide ripe conditions for COVID-19, but local health departments have little or no control over those settings. Limiting gatherings at bars and restaurants remains one of their only options for stemming the spread of coronavirus.

But the job of enforcing restrictions will likely remain up to local authorities, in accordance with their political leanings. The governor said the process for removing a liquor license at the state level involves a "long series of appeals."

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"It is possible have those removed, but it is a much longer period of time than I think any of us would like," Pritzker said Monday during a news conference in Chicago. "It can be done and should be done at the local level."

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