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Changing Course, Sangamon County To Close Indoor Service At Bars, Restaurants As COVID-19 Surges


Just days into their two-week plan to allow bars and restaurants to continue indoor service despite Gov. JB Pritzker’s order to curb COVID-19’s rapid resurgence in the region, Sangamon County and Springfield officials are reversing course.

Beginning Friday, area bars and restaurants must stop serving indoors, or risk their liquor or food license if they stay open. That’s according to new executive orders signed Tuesday by Sangamon County Board Chair Andy Van Meter and Department of Public Health Director Gail O’Neill.

Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said at a city council meeting he plans to sign a similar order on Thursday.

Region 3 – which includes Springfield and west-central Illinois – triggered the mitigations late last month after the region saw a COVID-19 positivity rate greater than 8% for three straight days. The rules, which include shuttering indoor dining and bar service, were set to take effect Nov. 1.

When local officials announced the plan to defy the governor’s orders last week, they also said if numbers were bad enough, they'd reconsider and implement all regulations aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In consultation with medical advisors, they set the threshold at an average positivity rate above 12% for the county for three straight days, which would trigger closure of indoor service. The rolling average reached 14.4% Saturday for the county, according to the most recent data available from the Illinois Department of Public Health. It was 13.4% Friday, and 12.5% the day before that. The average rates lag three days behind.

The positivity rates reflect a surge in newly confirmed cases, and could continue to increase. The county health department reported a record-breaking 343 cases Tuesday. Four Sangamon County residents also died over the weekend after testing positive for the virus.

Van Meter pointed out that the additional rules they put in place last week for bars and restaurants - including collecting contact information for all patrons and keeping operable windows open to increase airflow - would not have had an effect on local cases yet. But he said the upswing in cases “require(s) us to act.”

“No one wants to do this,” Van Meter said in an emailed statement. “We are extremely concerned about the pressure on our local bars and restaurants, but based on the criteria we agreed to when adopting a phased approach to implementing the Governor’s order, our medical advisors have indicated that we have no choice but to take this step to try to reduce the spread.”

Local officials argued the delay in implementing the full mitigations would give businesses a “lifeline.” But it drew criticism from Pritzker and others, who said it would contribute to the ongoing surge.

“I know that locally they think that’s immediately good politics, but it’s good politics for a very small, very loud minority,” Pritzker said at a Monday news conference. “The vast majority of people want us to take strong action with regard to mitigations.”

Springfield City Council Reaction

Langfelder also referenced recommendations from medical advisors as he explained the reversal to city council members Tuesday night.

“It's going to be the capacity at our hospitals. That's really the danger,” he said. “With regards to not bending the curve with the positivity rate.”

Area hospitalizations are the highest they’ve been at any point during the pandemic, according to a dashboard Memorial Health System began publishing Tuesday. More than 120 people are in their five hospitals across the region battling COVID-19.

Hospitalizations in Region 3 are currently more than triple the peak from the spring, according to IDPH.

Langfelder again emphasized the importance of masks and said he plans to propose an expanded mask mandate that requires face coverings in all public areas. The requirement and fine of $50 for not complying approved last week applies to anyone in retail establishments.

Meanwhile, Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley said she’d be inundated with calls from constituents for more action from the city to control the virus spread. Last week, she expressed frustration at the mayor’s decision not to implement the governor’s orders.

“I think it’s alarming that we’re waiting until Thursday to take any additional action,” she said of the decision to now implement the indoor service ban.

But there was dissent too. Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath says he thinks the hospitality industry is being unfairly targeted for restrictions since there have been few outbreaks at local establishments.

“If there's information out there that the bars and restaurants are causing this thing that I'm up for a vote, shut it down,” he said. “But there's absolutely nothing.”

Business owners have been making similar arguments.

Illinois Department of Public Health contact tracing data for the west-central Illinois region show there is likely transmission at bars and restaurants, with about 10.7% of people who participated in tracing saying they’d been to an establishment in the two weeks before they tested positive. National studies show bars and restaurants are riskier because patrons must remove their masks to eat and drink.

Meanwhile, city council members continued to ask about federal funds the city has to support businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. Langfelder said he’d have an update next week.

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