Restaurants in Winnebago County say they feel singled out over COVID-19 restrictions enforcement in northern Illinois.
Since Nov. 20, the Winnebago County Health Department has stepped up enforcement of the statewide ban on indoor dining, with multiple restaurants being issued closure orders after resisting the mandate by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, claiming any such enforcement would be unconstitutional.
The risk of COVID-19 spread can increase in a restaurant or bar as interactions within 6 feet of others increases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC terms indoor dining without restrictions of social distancing as having “the highest risk” and “higher risk” for indoor seating when reduced to meet social distancing requirements.
In Roscoe, Jessica’s Restaurant has been a vocal critic of the health department’s enforcement and stood as one of the foremost critics of the restriction on indoor dining. To date, the restaurant has received six closure notices from the health department, according to Fati Mixha, the owner’s son.
“The trend has been that after your seventh notice they will threaten to take away your food license,” Mixha said.
Mixha added that an employee was issued a notice to appear in court for violating the Village of Roscoe’s ordinance that closed indoor dining, in line with the statewide order, and the business has been “threatened” with a fine of $750 per day for defying the no indoor dining order.
“We plan on staying open and that means we’ll do whatever it takes,” Mixha said. “We have multiple lawyers representing us in this fight and if necessary (we) will take both the county and village to court.”
In South Beloit, Neli’s Family Restaurant received its seventh closure order from the health department on Nov. 10. On Nov. 28, owner Zendel Imeri said he received a letter from the county that stated he could face a $1,000 daily fine for defying the indoor dining shutdown, along with suspension of the establishment’s food license.
“Our lawyer advised on shutting it down,” Imeri said. “It was a tough decision, but we wanted to play it safe. You don’t want to lose your license because then you’d be fighting an uphill battle. You do what you have to do.”
Neli’s switched back to curbside and carryout orders, but Imeri said this time sales were down drastically from the spring lockdown.
“I don’t know how much longer we can do this,” Imeri said. “There has to be a middle ground somewhere. We’re up against the state line with Wisconsin where everything is open. We have to find a way to still be open.”
So far, Imeri said he has yet to lay off any employees, but he acknowledged that some staff members have left for positions at restaurants across the border in Beloit.
“They can get jobs there,” Imeri said. “That’s not anything personal. I don’t blame them. Everyone has bills to pay.”
By closing indoor dining and coming into compliance, Imeri said he hoped it would set Neli’s up to qualify for future pandemic assistance for employees.
Both Mixha and Imeri said they feel the restaurant industry is being singled out for lack of compliance for COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“It feels like we are being targeted,” Imeri said. “It’s like we are getting bullied by the health department. It’s not fair to us.”
Mixha added, “The main thing I always stress is that we’re not some anti-masker COVID hoaxers. We know this is real and that it can be dangerous. We care about our customers, and that’s why we actually follow the science … This is about science and survival.”
Artisan Pub co-owners Beth and Bob Larsen say they feel their business has been at an extreme disadvantage being so close to the Wisconsin state line and the vastly different COVID-19 environment in Rock County compared to Winnebago County.
The pair say they made a decision at the beginning of the pandemic to follow all public health guidelines and statewide orders to protect the integrity of their business and maintain good standing of their liquor and food licenses.
“We understand that each business has to do what they think is best and I don’t hold that against them,” Beth Larsen said. “But we feel that it hurts the businesses that are in compliance.”
Since Nov. 20, Bob Larsen said the restaurant had struggled to replace the loss of indoor dining with carryout and curbside pickup.
“It hasn’t been good this time around,” Bob Larsen said. “It’s killing people who are going by the rules.”
On Tuesday, the business was notified by the health department of a complaint that was made against Artisan for holding indoor dining, a claim that both Beth and Bob emphatically denied.
“We’d like to know what recourse we have,” Beth Larsen said. “We feel like there’s no way for us to know who is making these complaints and no way of standing up for ourselves.”
A spokesperson for the health department did not respond to a request for comment as of press time Wednesday.