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Local

From March to Sept. in pandemic, 3 restaurants written up by health department for non-compliance

3 eateries written up by health department since pandemic began

PJ's Courthouse Tavern and Grille in Sycamore.
PJ's Courthouse Tavern and Grille in Sycamore.

Between mid-March and Sept. 30, three local business have received formal warnings from the DeKalb County Health Department for not following public safety protocols related to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to health department records obtained by the Daily Chronicle through the Freedom of Information Act, all three businesses – Elleson's Bakery, 344 W. State. St. in Sycamore, PJ's Courthouse Tavern, 202 W. State St., in Sycamore, and Edgebrook Golf Course, 2100 Suydam Road in Sandwich – received written warnings from the health department after complaint follow-ups by health department staff confirmed noncompliance.

Only PJ's Courthouse Tavern was ordered to have customers disperse, losing its food permit for three hours July 31, records show, while Elleson's and Edgebrook both received written notice by health department officials to comply with regulations involving social distancing measures.

PJ's owner Paul Schwartz said he was surprised when he found out.

"We had to eliminate three tables and move two tables up to the bar," Schwartz said in an email to the Daily Chronicle.

Schwartz on Friday joined with 10 other business owners who've teamed up to sue Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike, claiming mitigations placed on the health geographical area known as Region 1 are "unfair" amid higher positivity rates and coronavirus cases in other counties beyond DeKalb. The lawsuit has twice attempted to stay the indoor dining ban, a request that was twice denied by DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge Bradley Waller, who said the governor's authority in matters of a public health crisis supersede local rule.

Region 1, which includes DeKalb County north to Rockford and west to Iowa, was put under further mitigations after posting a seven-day rolling positivity average above 8%, reaching 8.8% in data released Friday.

DeKalb County had been under that threshold until hitting 8.2% in data released Friday, which represents the positivity rate reported Wednesday.

Many restaurants are remaining open for carryout and curbside pickup options but say, much like the beginning of the pandemic, it's not enough to keep their businesses alive.

Representatives for Elleson's could not be reached for comment.

Scott McAllister, managing director at Edgebrook, said the restaurant at the golf course hasn't been open during the pandemic, although staff have been delivering food such as hot dogs to golfers on the course.

"We put all social distancing-type policies into place," McAllister said. "We don't have the authorization or the power to police everywhere. I'm sure there are times when people may congregate and someone sees it and may complain. We're doing our best under the circumstances."

McAllister said the course has hosted some large events, and he feels that although they've followed guidelines, that's what may have triggered the call.

How COVID-19 compliance works

The health department does not seek out violations, rather staff use a complaint-based system to investigate businesses. Health department authority is the law of the land in matters of a public health crisis, not law enforcement.

When reached to provide further context for FOIA data, Greg Maurice, director of health protection for the county, said complaints made before Aug. 7 were tracked in a way that the number of complaints made can't be accurately reported.

From Aug. 7 until Oct. 1, Maurice said 27 complaints were made regarding employees without masks and businesses not enforcing mask or social distancing guidelines for customers.

When a first complaint is received, the health department calls the establishment to provide information on safety guidelines. A lot of times it's just a matter of educating businesses on the proper protocols and warnings don't need to be issued, said Lisa Gonzalez, county health department administrator.

"First of all, we have to verify the validity of the complaint, Gonzalez said. "And secondly, it just takes a phone call and maybe some education and maybe the complaint is taken care of that way."

When a second complaint is received, the business receives a written notice from the health department, again providing further education. Elleson's, PJ's and Egebrook all reached this step, but PJ's required additional action, records show.

The third attempt by health department officials to enforce proper health protocals involves ordering an establishment to have some or all of the people on the premises disperse.

If an establishment does not comply with the third warning, its food permit may be pulled and it will be referred to the state's attorney for an injunction of order to close. Only PJ's got this far, having its food permit pulled for three hours before rectifying the situation.

Any establishment that doesn't comply with the written dispersal order will be subject to penalties, including a Class A misdemeanor with fines up to $2,500. No DeKalb County establishment has reached this level, records show.

Week 1 of renewed mitigations

According to documents obtained through a FOIA request, during the first weekend of the indoor dining ban Oct. 3 to 5, a total of 11 complaints were received by the health department regarding county businesses not complying with the prohibition.

None received formal citations by the health department, however, Maurice said, as staff were able to call the businesses to validate the complaint and inform the establishment of proper procedures.

McAllister said that in general, the restrictions currently in place on DeKalb County's health region – no indoor dining at restaurants or bars – seems to focus too much on one industry.

"We're not really any different from a grocery store or any other business that's allowed to be open," McAllister said. "This had to be taken with bars and restaurants because [the health department] can control that. But who controls all the others that aren't social distancing? They're not enforcing other businesses that don't social distance. They seem to be picking on the food industry in my opinion and don't care about the other stuff."

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