Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series talking with local public health officials about contact tracing, Region 1 mitigation enforcement, staffing, messaging and public health concerns as it relates to the current surge in COVID-19 cases in DeKalb County. Read Part 1, on contact tracing and asymptomatic community spread and Part 2, on record-keeping amid mitigation enforcement, at www.daily-chronicle.com.
Daily Chronicle editor Kelsey Rettke and sports editor/reporter Eddie Carifio spoke with Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator, and Greg Maurice, director of health protection, for the following on messaging during a pandemic and the decision to publicize a lists of businesses found not complying with mitigations enforced during an October case surge.
Of the 14 businesses listed on the DeKalb County Health Department's website as being noncompliant with the indoor dining ban amid the current COVID-19 surge in the geographical area known as Region 1, Lisa Gonzalez said it's important to remember there are nearly 400 businesses in compliance.
"We did go back and forth for some time trying to decide how best to manage through this period of mitigation," said Gonzalez, public health administrator. "We were really talking back and forth regarding the amount of public interest. We are a government entityl therefore, we are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And we began to get quite a few FOIAs about who are you enforcing and what are you doing?"
Gonzalez spoke about the decision to publish a public list of local bars and restaurants found to be not in compliance with the indoor dining ban, saying it was a matter of public interest, not public punishment.
Between rising COVID-19 cases and the number of FOIA requests coming in from those demanding to know what businesses were noncompliant, health department staff decided to be forthcoming about that information, Gonzalez said.
In the past 13 days, there have been 538 cases recorded in the county, accounting for 20.6% of all local cases identified in the county since the pandemic began seven months ago.
She said the decision also was to provide accurate context to the data, so curious minds wouldn't interpret it themselves.
"We wanted to be as transparent as possible because of the administrative burden for a lot of requests," Gonzalez said. "But I think more importantly, the spreadsheet we use to check that enforcement is a live document, so it literally changes by the hour. We know that Winnebago County did it before us. We didn't do it because of them. In fact, I think Winnebago and DeKalb right no are the only ones in Region 1 doing it."
She said the caution came in making sure those on the list – which both she and Greg Maurice, director of health protection, stressed is "not punitive" – were proven as noncompliant according to the steps of enforcement mitigation.
"I know some people think it looks punitive being out there but we’re just getting a large volume of requests for information and people interested in this, whether you’re on one side or the other," Maurice said. "Some people wanted a list because that’s where they’re going to dine. We’re just trying to be transparent about what’s out there."
Both said the list includes only those businesses who were found not following the indoor dining ban more than once, even after they were providing education and warnings by health officials.
The health department's website also includes a digital form to make complaints about a business, and with the caveat that their tip could be used as testimony in court for enforcement.
"If deemed necessary you also agree to testify in court," the website form reads. "[If this box is not checked, this complaint may not be able to be used for enforcement.]"
To date, no DeKalb County businesses have required court proceedings for mitigation enforcement, health officials confirmed. An updated mitigation noncompliance list is expected Friday.
Where do we go from here?
First and foremost, being proactive instead of reactive with potential virus exposure is key, Gonzalez said.
"We really want people to understand that if you think you could have been in contact or you’re having symptoms, or you’ve been tested, quarantine yourself," she said. "Quarantine yourself until you know for sure and you’ve gotten instructions. I think that’s critical."
While reality may seem bleak, Gonzalez said there still are ways to support local businesses, although it may look "a little differently."
"As I said before, there are over 400 local businesses that are impacted by mitigation, we have a small portion maybe making decisions that are not in support of mitigation strategy," Gonzalez said. "But everyone can support local business, by shopping locally, by ordering in from your favorite restaurant. As the holiday approaches, get that gift card from a restaurant that may be struggling, really get out there and try to do our part as well. As long as you wear your mask, you should be able to do it.”
And in month seven of a pandemic, faced with mounting public pushback from those unwilling to heed mitigations, Gonzalez said she knows there are those out there unwilling to take the risks of a global pandemic seriously.
“If you hear misinformation, stop it,” Gonzalez. “Because there is a whole lot of misinformation out there, and I think part of it’s political, but part of it is just misinformation. If you know the right answer, then share it without being confrontational. I think people can do that, and it would be super helpful if they could.”
The rhetoric’s not new these days, but public health officials continue to emphasize what Gonzalez calls the “three W’s.”
“We’ve been preaching this from the very beginning: Wear your mask, wash your hands, make sure you’re keeping distance,” she said. “I know with the holidays coming up, it’s going to be particularly hard to do that. People want to gather, they want to get their friends and family. I get it. Me too.”
Contrary to some beliefs, she said, masks actually work, and using them is vital to tackling community spread.
“We know that masking works,” Gonzalez said. “We have national data that says, if we look at outbreaks, for example, we can say this group was all wearing masks, they did it well, and it worked. They didn’t spread the infection further. And so, say what you will, but when it comes down to it, making sure that social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands is critical.”
With the holidays coming up, family gatherings, if they happen at all, need to be cognizant of guidelines based on data that shows community spread of the virus is prevalent in even intimate gatherings, she said.
“Also, when you’re thinking about getting together as a group outside of your household, keep the group small, wear a mask, stay socially distant, get together but do that.” Gonzalez said. “If you do that, we’re going to be much better off as a community.”