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Indoor dining ban proves tough to enforce for Galesburg

Matt Koester
The Register-Mail
A sign outside of Applebee's Grill & Bar, 1966 N. Henderson St., Galesburg, advertises that the restaurant is open for indoor seating on Friday.

GALESBURG — On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Region 2 of Illinois, containing Knox County and other central-north counties, was placed under increased COVID-19 restrictions as the autumn wave of cases hitting the entire state had spread to the region.

Besides limiting gathering sizes to 25 people or fewer, this ruling also banned indoor dining in the region.

Still, plenty of restaurants throughout the state have said they will not comply, and have remained open. The Register-Mail reached out to many of them in Galesburg, but none agreed to speak for this article.

Unlike state masking rules, which can be enforced through criminal fines of up to $2,500 toward businesses, the legal enforcement of the indoor dining rule is a bit unclear.

After Region 2 was put under the restrictions, Galesburg Mayor John Pritchard indicated that he would not enforce the rule, and Galesburg police Chief Russ Idle has said they are referring complaints about restaurants that keep their indoor dining open to the Knox County Health Department.

“GPD has issued zero citations for restaurant violations,” Idle told The Register-Mail over email Wednesday. “We have not investigated any cases since the new restrictions went into place. These issues are being referred to the health department.”

According to public health administrator Michele Gabriel, the Knox County Health Department has two distinct avenues in investigations. They give warning and education to businesses that receive complaints, but so far with these they have not had to issue any letters that would then be referred to the state’s attorney. This would generally be for things such as breaking masking rules.

“As far as the complaints that we get, we haven’t had anybody who’s been noncompliant,” Gabriel said. “Most people want to do what’s right.”

With the executive order for closing indoor dining, Gabriel says there have been consistent problems since the beginning.

“I don’t have police powers at the health department,” she said. “I can ask people to do things and they can comply, or not comply.”

She said that by and large, restaurants will work with the health department if there are issues, but it is still unclear how things would proceed from an actual complaint.

“To me, it’s more about educating all of the businesses and helping them operate in an appropriate manner,” Gabriel said.

While the health department does have the support of law enforcement, she said, they have not needed to use it so far.

“I feel there’s another side of public health to this, too,” Gabriel said. “At some point you don’t want the cure to be worse than the virus.”

She pointed to mental health and economic impacts as an example, and noted that Knox County contact tracers have not found indoor dining to be a large contributor to COVID cases, even as caseloads and deaths in the county have been on a consistent upswing since Labor Day.

“We’re really not seeing a lot of our outbreaks coming from restaurants and bars,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of families, large gatherings, and a lot of workplaces.”

Pritchard says his understanding from the Illinois Department of Public Health is that state police may come in and issue citations for businesses allowing indoor dining, but it is not clear to him how likely that will be.

The mayor says he does not have a stance on the restrictions, for or against. Businesses have to make decisions in the same manner that individuals do and gauge the risk for themselves.

“Every single business owner has to make a decision based on the circumstances,” he said.

Pritchard echoed Gabriel’s statement that more cases have been found at private gatherings and long-term care facilities than at restaurants.

When shutdowns were first levied in the spring on businesses and events in Illinois, they were strict, but they also came with various kinds of aid for businesses and workers from the state and from the federal CARES Act.

“That’s a key difference between today and then,” Pritchard said.

The $600 weekly unemployment benefits on top of the regular state benefits were huge, he noted, as well as the stimulus checks and Paycheck Protection Program loans that could allow businesses to stay open.

“None of those things are available at this point,” the mayor noted.

He says the other thing that has changed for restaurants and bars is that many are in a worse financial situation than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Some local restaurants and bars have already called it quits, like Charred 51 and Cherry Street, although the latter is still planning a relaunch under different management.

“They were shut down for a few months, and they’ve been stricken financially because of that,” Pritchard said.

As of now, COVID-19 still is growing in Knox County. Two deaths were announced in the county Saturday, bringing the total number of county deaths to 38. Ninety-two cases were announced Saturday as well, bringing the county total to 2,080.