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'This isn't political anymore': local business owners, leaders react to tightened Region 1 mitigations

Local business owners, community leaders react to tightened Region 1 mitigations

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On the heels of a week filled with debate over who gets to follow what rules and Thursday's announcement which tightens already tight regulations, local business owners say they're desperate for support.

Ammar Mahmood, owner of Jamrah Middle Eastern Cuisine restaurants in DeKalb and Sycamore, said he is “in disbelief that more restrictions are being added on.”

“Words can’t describe how tough it is for our employees,” Mahmood said. “In the restaurant industry, a lot of our employees are single moms, single dads. In my opinion, these mitigations hurt employees a lot harder than the restaurant owners. Employees of restaurants and bars are worrying about paying their bills, putting food on their family’s table and making ends meet.”

Jamrah reopened its DeKalb store at 209 E. Lincoln Highway Wednesday for the first time since March, just one day before Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced further mitigations will be enforced on the geographical health region known as Region 1, which includes DeKalb County, Rockford and the Sauk Valley area because of continued rises in COVID-19 cases. Additional measures will begin Sunday, Pritzker said, and will limit gatherings to groups of 10 or fewer instead of 25. Tables at bars and restaurants offering outdoor dining will also be limited to six instead of 10. He said mitigations imposed Oct. 3 which prohibit indoor dining will remain in effect until positivity rates drop.

DeKalb County's seven-day rolling positivity rate shot up to 9.3% from 8.2% because of a 20.5% day on Monday, according to the most recent available IDPH data.

Pritzker said case surges in Region 1, which borders Wisconsin and Iowa, are likely also because of a "spillover effect" with surges in those neighboring states, who still are reporting record numbers.

"It is very serious right now, folks," Pritzker said. "If we need to close down restaurants and bars or take away their liquor licenses, gaming licenses, we will do that because we are now headed into a peak that is beyond, potentially, where we were in March and April."

Whirlwind week

Thursday's announcement comes after a week of debate and uncertainty in DeKalb County about what type of businesses should adhere to the indoor dining ban. Also on Thursday, the county recorded a record number of COVID-19 cases within a single-day over.

The debate comes after the owner of Faranda's Banquet Center, Bill McMahon, said health officials called him and told him Tuesday afternoon he can continue indoor dining until they can clarify whether it's allowed by the state. That call was spurred by a complaint following a social media post which circulated Tuesday showing DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith dining inside for breakfast Tuesday morning. Smith said he and Faranda's weren't doing anything wrong since the banquet center is exempt from indoor dining prohibitions.

In response, several other restaurants announced Wednesday they'd reopen for indoor dining despite mitigations. Meanwhile, restaurant owners say they're bearing the brunt of the burden.

Jose Arriaga, manager of Country Kitchen, who spoke to the Daily Chronicle before Pritzker's announcement Thursday, said owning a business during the COVID-19 pandemic has been “really hard.”

“We put up a tent, but nobody wants to eat outside,” he said. “It’s difficult to turn people away when they’re hungry. People just don’t want to order out and eat cold, soggy food. … People come to our restaurant for the environment. Everyone knows each other, our restaurant is like home to them.”

Mahmood's Sycamore Jamrah location, 2672 DeKalb Ave., has been open throughout the pandemic for carry-out and delivery. To make ordering and pick-up easier for customers at his restaurants, Mahmood has added stickers to the floor for spacing and social distancing. He has also increased cleaning and sanitation throughout the day.

“We comply and follow all of the rules and restrictions,” Mahmood said. “We’re losing customers to neighboring counties and states that are open. It makes it tougher for small businesses. We have excellent staff, service and quality, we just need people’s support. I’m doing everything I can for my business to survive.”

Gasoline on the fire

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith said Thursday it seemed like tightening the mitigations was like throwing gasoline on the fire for local business owners who've pushed back on restrictions initially enforced Oct. 3. He said he knows businesses may feel like opening up indoors is their only option.

“I share their concern, I share their pain, I share their uneasiness with the holidays just around the corner,” Smith said. “We’ll continue at the city of DeKalb to ask our establishments to stay aware of what the mitigations are."

Smith said city staff have been working closely with the DeKalb County Health Department, the city's attorney and officials to be prepared to do whatever may need to happen as it relates to enforcement. Enforcement, however, falls heavily on state officials along with the local health departments, who control food permits. Municipal leaders, however, such as Smith as mayor, have authority over liquor licenses.

“It’s a very, very confusing situation, and one that we all hope comes to some kind of conclusion," Smith said. "And that conclusion is spelled v-a-c-c-i-n-e."

Rose Treml, executive director for the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce, said she's not sure if people understand how much unprecedented hardship local businesses, namely restaurants and bars, are enduring. The Sycamore Chamber penned a letter to Pritzker last week, imploring him to lift or loosen mitigations.

Instead, more will be imposed, and Treml said this could be the end for some local businesses.

“This is not political anymore," Treml said. "It’s truly just a matter of survival for these businesses.”

Treml said things are dire for businesses owned for decades by community members' friends, neighbors and families. She said she knows businesses have worked to protect themselves and the community from Day 1, and owners are willing to follow state health and safety regulations to a point.

Treml said she can't help but think the mitigations are arbitrarily targeting restaurants and bars, and said she's concerned closures in DeKalb County could drive people to travel outside the county to go out to eat.

“So I’m not sure that some of the rules and mitigations are going to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” Treml said.

Now more than ever, local businesses need the support, Treml said.

“If residents can dine out, order out, carry out, I implore them to do so,” Treml said.

State officials, including Pritzker in his announcement Thursday afternoon, continued to implore compliance, emphasizing the seriousness of Region 1's reality. He reiterated that contact tracing data conducted by state and local health departments shows restaurants and bars are significant sources of community spread.

"Stop fighting, trying to find some flaw in the data, trying to find somebody who will say a bar and restaurant is not a spreading location," Pritzker said. "The truth of it is ... bars and restaurants are seriously places where spreading takes place. They are one of the top place that spreading takes place."

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