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Illinois orders tighter restrictions on bars, restaurants and gatherings in several suburban counties as coronavirus positivity rates rise
Tuesday, October 20, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Dan Petrella & Grace Wong
Roughly a third of Illinois’ 102 counties and a quarter of its residents soon will be living under stricter rules aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus as the state attempts to rein in a resurgent pandemic.
Starting Friday, indoor service at bars and restaurants will be prohibited in DuPage, Kane, Will and Kankakee counties, an area that’s home to more than 1 in 6 Illinois residents, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday.
While the governor lamented that the rollback was needed, restaurant owners worried the latest wave of restrictions would make it even more difficult to stay in business as winter looms and outdoor dining becomes less of an option.
“It’s absolutely devastating that this has happened again,” said Raffi Demerdjian, general manager of Empire Burger & Brew in Naperville. “The restaurant business is difficult as it is. To be put through these restrictions makes it more difficult ... it’s a sickening, sickening feeling.”
The two regions that comprise DuPage, Kane, Will and Kankakee counties are the latest to see their economic reopenings partially rolled back after experiencing spikes in the percentage of coronavirus tests returning positive results. As of Saturday, the seven-day average of positivity rates in the regions remained above a state-established threshold of 8% for the third straight day, triggering the clampdown.
When the latest rollbacks take effect later this week, four of the 11 regions in Pritzker’s reopening plan will be under the stricter requirements, which also include lowering a cap on gatherings from 50 people to 25. The tighter rules take effect Thursday in the 20 southernmost counties in Illinois and have been in effect since Oct. 3 in the nine counties in the state’s northwest corner.
“There is no easy fix for the effects of this virus on our economy and on our public health,” Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing. “But we can and we will manage through this."
In DuPage and Kane counties, the rolling positivity rate was 9% as of Saturday, up from 4.8% on Oct. 3. Will and Kankakee counties, which previously were under the stricter rules for three weeks from late August to mid-September, saw positivity rates skyrocket again, to 8.6% as of Saturday from 5.6% two weeks earlier.
While they’ve yet to meet the threshold that would trigger a rollback, the state’s seven other regions, including Chicago, suburban Cook County, and Lake and McHenry counties, have seen their positivity rates rise in the past two weeks and could be headed toward renewed restrictions if recent trends continue.
As of Saturday, the rolling positivity rates were 7.5% in Lake and McHenry counties, 7.1% in suburban Cook County and 6.7% in Chicago, with the city’s rate jumping 2 percentage points in a week.
Statewide the positivity rate stood at 5.5% as of Monday, up from 4.5% a week earlier and 3.5% at the beginning of the month.
Despite the recent surge in cases across the state, Pritzker said Tuesday that a new statewide stay-at-home order, like the one he issued when the pandemic was first taking hold in March, is “not something that we’re considering right now."
“We have this resurgence mitigation plan in place; it’s been working,” he said. “As regions have gone into the resurgence mitigations, they’ve been able to lower their positivity rates and come out of it. Takes a little longer for some regions than others, for reasons I can’t explain, but they do come out of it.”
Although schools are not affected by the stricter rules, some suburban districts announced this week that they were rethinking plans to bring more students back into classrooms, even before the governor’s office instituted the stricter COVID-19 mitigations.
State officials on Tuesday announced 3,714 newly confirmed cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of known cases statewide to 350,875. With an additional 41 fatalities also announced, the statewide death toll now stands at 9,277.
The state received results from 59,077 coronavirus tests in the past 24 hours.
Over the past week, Illinois has seen the second-highest number of total cases of any state, trailing only Texas and just ahead of Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On a per capita basis, however, the state is tied for 13th among states and U.S. territories.
In addition to the number of newly confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise in Illinois.
The state was averaging 36 deaths per day over the past week as of Tuesday, up from 27 a week earlier and the highest seven-day average since June 28. At the height of the first wave in May, the state was averaging more than 100 deaths per day.
As of Monday night, 2,261 people were hospitalized in Illinois with COVID-19, up from 1,848 patients a week earlier, a 22% increase. Of those in the hospital Monday, 489 were in intensive care and 195 were on ventilators, both up from the prior week.
In order for the new restrictions to be lifted, a region has to bring its rolling positivity rate down to 6.5% or below for three straight days. So, far the Will and Kankakee county region and the Metro East area outside St. Louis have been able to do that, although the former is going back under the stricter rules.
If a region remains above an 8% positivity rate for 14 days, the state can impose further restrictions, such as additional limits on outdoor dining and a suspension of in-person shopping at “nonessential” retailers.
Pritzker said his administration has focused on restaurant and bar restrictions as one of the first steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 because scientific research and the state’s contact tracing efforts have indicated eating and drinking establishments are major sources of transmission. State contact tracing data from August and September show that, aside from a catchall category for social gatherings, restaurants and bars were the locations most frequently visited by people who tested positive.
“This isn’t about punishing anybody. ... We didn’t pick it just because it sounds good or that we want to do it,” Pritzker said.
The state is prioritizing businesses in the regions affected by the tighter rules as it distributes a round of $220 million in business interruption grants funded by the federal coronavirus relief package, according to the governor’s office.
Still, economic uncertainty remains high among bar owners, restaurateurs and their workers.
Employees of Empire Burger & Brew began texting Demerdjian nonstop when news of the stricter rules broke Tuesday afternoon, concerned about staff cutbacks and schedules.
“It’s very upsetting, it’s very depressing, and we feel bad for all of the hospitality workers,” Demerdjian said. “I just don’t understand why it’s restaurants and bars that are taking the fall, when other businesses are considered essential. I don’t know how the governor can make that distinction.”
He said he wishes he could see the science and data behind the decision. His phone calls to other restaurateurs in Naperville revealed a ripple of anxiety many experienced after hearing about the restrictions, especially after seven months of rules that seemed to change almost weekly, he said.
While he has seen posts on social media encouraging restaurants to defy the order, Demerdjian said he plans to stick with the new rules in hopes that local officials will find ways to support the industry. He emphasized that restaurants are already highly regulated and bear the brunt of negative reviews online when they enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines with uncooperative guests.
Not only will restaurants be affected, but liquor distributors, farmers and other producers connected to the industry will also be negatively impacted, he said. Demerdjian already canceled liquor and produce orders Tuesday and anticipates more adjustments as things progress.
He said he dreads calling employees to tell them they’ve been let go and need to file for unemployment again. He said he wished this happened earlier in the year, when patrons were more open to dining outdoors, rather than braving the cold weather quickly setting in.
Chef Paul Virant owns Vistro in Hinsdale, the only one of his three restaurants that will be affected by the governor’s tightened restrictions. Vistro has a heated tent, so it’ll still be able to seat customers.
But without indoor dining, Virant will have to rely on attracting more carryout orders and selling meal kits. People still have to eat, he said, but this order means fewer customers going out to do it.
“It’s a tragedy,” he said. “People have got to start wearing masks. Clearly the pandemic is not going away — and it’s getting worse.”
That message was echoed by Dr. Justin Macariola-Coad, interim chief medical officer at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, who joined Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike for Tuesday’s briefing at the Thompson Center in the Loop.
“Wisconsin is already surging, and northern Illinois is likely next,” said Macariola-Coad, a father of three from Elmhurst who acknowledged the strain the pandemic has put on families.
Steps taken now “will define what happens in the coming weeks to months,” he said.
“Wearing a mask, washing your hands, and keeping distance from one another will prevent the spread of this illness and ultimately save lives,” Macariola-Coad said.
Also, five more states, including Ohio, were added to Chicago’s travel quarantine order while none were removed.
Starting Friday, travelers heading from Colorado, Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia and Texas will be subject to the city’s two-week quarantine requirement, according to a news release. For the Lone Star state, this week will be the third time Chicago has added it to its travel order.
Last week, the city placed Indiana on its list for the first time, ensuring all five states bordering Illinois are part of the order. A state gets placed on the list if it averages more than 15 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.
A Lombard native, Dan Petrella has written for newspapers from Chicago to Carbondale. Before joining the Tribune in 2017, he was Springfield bureau chief for Lee Enterprises newspapers. He's also been an editor and reporter at The State Journal-Register in Springfield. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Grace Wong has written about the restaurant industry and food for the Chicago Tribune since 2017. Before that, she was a Metpro resident covering health, crime, immigration, courts, Chicago Park District, police, the Cubs and more. A Chicago native, she spent time in the Los Angeles area as a beat reporter before returning in 2015.