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Questions About Local Data, Enforcement Swirl With New COVID-19 Restrictions

Masks on statues of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in downtown Springfield
Masks on statues of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in downtown Springfield

A group of Springfield bars and restaurant owners say they’re taking legal action and refusing to follow new rules imposed by the governor shuttering indoor service after the west-central Illinois region saw a sustained rise in COVID-19 test positivity rates, triggering the restrictions.

In similar Facebook posts over the weekend, the 23 businesses said they’re suing Gov. JB Pritzker over the rules meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, alleging the governor does not have the authority to impose them. Similar lawsuits have been filed in other counties, and judges in McHenry and DuPage have upheld the orders.

In recent days, Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder, Republican lawmakers and business owners have questioned the epidemiological data behind the restrictions and worried about the economic pain they will cause owners and workers at local establishments.

Screenshot of Corner Pub and Grill Facebook post about the lawsuit.
Screenshot of Corner Pub and Grill Facebook post about the lawsuit.

However, a local infectious disease specialist and a University of Illinois Chicago epidemiologist say there is evidence locally and statewide that shows bars and restaurants are places of transmission and higher risk. And they say implementing new restrictions could help quell the state’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases and resulting hospitalizations.

The arguments come after Pritzker announced a ban on indoor dining and drinking in Region 3 – an 18-county area of west-central Illinois that includes Springfield. The rules also limit operating hours and reduce capacity for gatherings to fewer than 25 people.

The region experienced three days of more than 8% average positivity rates for COVID-19 tests, indicating a surge in cases. As of Sunday, all 11 regions of the state are under or about to be under increased restrictions.

No Outbreaks Means Little Risk? Public Health Experts Say No

At a news conference Friday, Republican lawmakers and some restaurant owners argued that because there have been no coronavirus outbreaks traced back to their establishments, they should not be the target of new rules.

State Rep. Steve McClure, a Springfield Republican, questioned the information Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health are using to justify imposing restrictions on bars and restaurants in the region.

“We just flat out don't know in most cases where people are catching COVID-19,” McClure said. “So there's got to be some kind of scapegoat. And that's unacceptable.”

Pritzker’s administration released a report of where people recently infected with the disease in Region 3 might have been exposed. Topping the list were schools and a category dubbed “other,” which includes vacation, fraternity houses and nonresponses. Those top contact tracing locations were followed by bars and restaurants.

Gov. JB Pritzker's administration released contract data for Region 3 after it imposed new restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Gov. JB Pritzker's administration released contract data for Region 3 after it imposed new restrictions on bars and restaurants.

“Our industry is being targeted. And why is it being targeted?” asked Tim Timoney, an attorney and co-owner of Corner Pub and Grill in Springfield. “We've got no evidence that's been presented to us that there's been any outbreaks or anything arising from bars and restaurants in Springfield, Sangamon County, the region, or even in the state of Illinois.”

There have not been outbreaks traced back to local restaurants, the director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health confirmed last week.

However, Dr. Ronald Hershow, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois Chicago, explained that contact tracing efforts are not robust enough to trace the source of every case and to catch every outbreak, defined as five cases or more linked to a single location.

“There aren't enough epidemiologists in the state to do that kind of granular investigating,” he said. “And we're more dependent on aggregate data about which venues seem to come up again and again.”

Those venues when looking at statewide and regional contact tracing are schools and colleges, and bars and restaurants, Hershow said.

Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, who is a professor of infectious diseases at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and an advisor to the Sangamon County health department, agreed that local contact tracers aren’t able to identify every outbreak, but said they ask general questions about where people with COVID-19 have been.

“We do see spread. It's everywhere, it's across the board,” she said. “But I can tell you where they've been: bars and restaurants is definitely one of the higher ones that we have seen, then clinic visits and then office settings.”

Further, Sundareshan said national studies also point to restaurants and bars as places where people are more likely to contract COVID-19. She said environmental and behavioral factors – like poor ventilation systems or needing to remove a mask in order to eat or drink – increase risk.

In September, the county began using a new software to track cases, Salesforce, which IDPH is asking all county health departments to use. A spokesperson for Pritzker’s office said the administration plans to release the county-level data in the coming weeks. But Republicans said the delay is causing them to further question the data.

Economic Pain

Timoney, the restaurant owner, said the hospitality industry has always been tough, but 2020 is the “worst year ever.” He described having to lay off 35 of his 45 employees last March as the state’s stay-at-home order took effect. He said Corner Pub followed the rules so he could reopen months later.

“We reopened at less than half of what our normal business was, at extra expense (for) tents, paper products, (and) to-go things,” he said. “We're not going to be able to survive.”

Now with restrictions on indoor dining, he worries about having to again lay off staff, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.

Langfelder echoed a similar concern as he explained his position on keeping indoor service open for restaurants, but not bars.

“I don't think people are looking at that side of the equation…the impact they're having on people's health associated with putting people out of work and out of their business,” Langfelder said. “And I think you owe it to the restaurants…to really get the information and make the informed decision.”

Pritzker has touted relief programs, with both state and federal funding, that his administration has made available. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity currently has $220 million available in grants to small businesses, according to a news release.

Hershow said he is empathetic to business owners being squeezed by the restrictions. But with the pandemic close to “spiraling out of control,” these rules are some of the only tools policymakers have to curb the spread.

“We can’t have a functioning economy with an out-of-control pandemic,” Hershow said. “It just won't work.”

Copyright 2020 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS