New Rules For Springfield Businesses Draw Criticism From Retail Group

Apr 11, 2020

Stores in Springfield are now required to post signs that encourage customers to wear a face mask, enter the store with no more than one other family member, and avoid bringing children.

The essential businesses that are allowed to stay open during Illinois’ stay-at-home order must also have written policies on social distancing for customers to follow and employees to enforce.

The rules build on statewide mandates and recommendations that aim to make necessary trips to the grocery store or pharmacy amid the COVID-19 pandemic as safe as possible.

Springfield officials said the new mandates will safeguard the public. But the statewide group representing retailers believes the requirements are too burdensome and confuse messaging about how to keep customers safe.

Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said his group has been working with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his administration to develop rules and guidelines for stores that are open. Springfield’s additional rules, he argues, undermine those efforts.

“Anybody that steps outside of what the state recommends is causing a problem. They are confusing the message that the state and retail have been trying to burn home since this pandemic broke,” Karr said. The message is that it’s up to the customer to follow the rules.

Karr said if cities and local law enforcement wanted to help, they could have an officer in the store to tell people to follow social distancing rules.

But the city of Springfield sees it differently. The city wants businesses to be partners in making sure people abide by the rules, said Springfield Fire Chief Allen Reyne. The fire department is charged with ensuring businesses comply with the new order to post signs and develop a social distancing policy. After one written warning, the department can issue a fine of $500 a day for noncompliance.

Tape at a Walgreens in Springfield shows customers where to stand to stay 6 feet apart.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois

“We're not wanting to make law enforcement officials out of business owners. We're not wanting to put them in the middle of controversy,” said Reyne, whose department frequently works with businesses on compliance with fire codes. “But there's really no other way to do it.”

Reyne said Springfield police and fire are already stretched thin responding to the public health crisis. 

IRMA sent a letter recently to mayors and village presidents asking them not to pass such rules, calling them “counter-productive on a number of levels.”

Mayor Jim Langfelder said his office probably received the letter, but he had not read it. He said instituting rules beyond the state’s allows the city to respond to what’s happening in Springfield.

His latest executive orders, including one that allows police to fine residents who gather in crowds of 10 or more people, or violate other stay-at-home provisions, are in response to complaints about the people who aren’t following the rules.

But Karr argues the rules for stores make a patchwork system and can confuse both business owners and customers about what needs to be done.

“Just slapping a sign up that confuses the requirements and guidance is not helpful,” Karr said.

Pritzker’s executive order requires businesses to mark six-foot distances with tape or other signage and take other actions to ensure people are social distancing, including providing hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products for employees and customers, holding special operating hours for the elderly and other vulnerable customers, and offering online or remote services.

There is some flexibility with these requirements, said Karr, if for example, a store can’t find the hand sanitizer to provide because of lack of supply or doesn’t have a website or other way of making services available online.

Wearing a mask may help prevent the spread of the virus, and not bringing kids in the store can avoid having too many in the store. But they're recommendations, and stores are not required by Pritzker’s executive order to help enforce them.

IRMA also developed a list of other ways stores can protect customers and employees, such as putting plastic barriers up in check-out lines and making periodic announcements reminding people to follow social distancing.

Karr said requiring businesses to develop written policies, which might become outdated as new public health recommendations develop, is too burdensome.

The policies don’t have to be long, Reyne said. And Langfelder said the city is making a template of the signs businesses can post. It will be available on the city’s website to make compliance easier.

"It's more of a educational aspect for the business as well as customers," Langfelder said. "The intent is not to issue citation and get money. The intent is to keep public safe as much as possible."