DeKALB - The City of DeKalb is cracking down on gatherings and parties on private and public places such as parking lots in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Folks found to be in violation of Gov. JB Pritzker's social distancing mandates within city limits, or not wearing masks, could be fined a minimum of $300, according to an ordinance passed 7-1 (Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris voted against), with increased fines for repeated offenses if necessary.
According to the 'nuisance gatherings' ordinance, failure to comply with regulations such as gatherings of more than 10 people without a face covering or not maintaining at least six feet of distance between persons would result in a fine.
City Manager Bill Nicklas said the actions are in an attempt to mitigate spread, as DeKalb County COVID-19 cases are on the rise. On Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health marked the county at a warning level, the cause in part due to spikes in cases linked to Northern Illinois University campus.
As of Friday, the county is at 122 new positive cases per 100,000 people - up from 57 the week before. The target is at 50 per 100,000. Also, the positivity rate shot up last week from 4.9% to 8.4%, over the target of 8%. The DeKalb County Health Department reported 1,396 cases to date. NIU has reported 182 cases, and on Friday President Lisa Freeman announced all classes would go to online-only for two weeks.
Nicklas said there's been a discernible pattern the past few weeks, with gatherings of several hundred people on private and public parking lots.
"Here's our issue: we are on the rise in DeKalb County," Nicklas said. "Recently in the last month or so, we've had large gatherings, disproportionately wearing masks, looking for something to do. How is that enforced? We don't have a mask ordinance but there are very strict prohibitions against this from the governor's office."
On Aug. 24, DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith said he'd been in contact with Freeman, NIU and DeKalb police over 'several large gatherings' having been held on NIU campus despite social distancing regulations. On Sept. 5, NIU police responded to a shots fired incident in the parking lot of a residential hall, where many had gathered shortly after midnight.
"The expectation is that we won't arrest people, but put your mask on," Nicklas said. "It's remarkable, it's noticeable, and we are doing what the public health experts in our county and and at the state level are saying you need to do. This is not a joke, because not only are you going to affect people around you, but people who were there, you could be affected by somebody who’s asymptomatic, go home, that’s how it spreads. It's an insidious virus."
Morris expressed concern that the ordinance would deter people from being able to protest. Protests within the city and throughout DeKalb County have continued since May 30 revolving around police brutality and fair housing, at times daily for months, and other times throughout the week intermittently, whether downtown or in front of the DeKalb Police Department.
Nicklas said enforcement will be for those not wearing masks or not social distancing.
Morris and Ward 5 Alderman Scott McAdams (the latter of whom voted for the measure), asked whether the ordinance would be equally enforced, and not disproportionately impact those of lower socioeconomic value who may not have big homes and therefore gather, by default, outside.
"I really wasn't in favor of doing much enforcement on this," Morris said. "However, I guess the way I feel is if we're going to be putting this out there for people congregating outside, we really need to be communicating the same to businesses. I had someone specifically tell me that a very large business int he area would not even ask people to put on a mask if they came in not wearing a mask."
"We're looking for equal enforcement," Nicklas said. "We have two different challenges: one that's addresses by this ordinance which is looking at large gatherings, which oftentimes involves somebody's concern until the police are called."
He said the City of DeKalb does not have enforcement power in the same way the DeKalb County Health Department does for businesses not following public health regulations.
"According to the governor's order, we're here to monitor, take it in, make a phone call," Nicklas said. "If we don't, then we turn it over to the health department. They have fining capacity. We do not."