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‘Blindsided and heartbroken.’ Mood of restaurant, bar owners dismal as COVID restrictions are back in suburban Cook

Monday, October 26, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Karen Ann Cullotta,

Suburban Cook County will soon join other communities living under stricter measures intended to slow the latest COVID-19 surge, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Monday, much to the dismay of bar and restaurant owners who have already endured a dismal year.

“All the progress we’ve made over the last two months is out the door now, and we have to start back from zero,” said Arnie Krause, owner of The Claim Company restaurant in Northbrook.

It was a widespread sentiment in the suburbs after Pritzker announced the latest round of restrictions as coronavirus cases began to creep higher. A week ago, only one of the 11 regions in the governor’s reopening plan was forbidden to have indoor dining, bar service and crowds of more than 25 people. By Wednesday, more than half of the state’s population will be living under the stricter rules.

“No matter where in Illinois you call home, as you go about your daily lives, remember that this is not over,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Peoria. “There seems to be a COVID storm on the rise, and we have to get prepared.”

Suburban Cook County has had eight consecutive days of test positivity rate increases and seven days of increased hospital admissions. It is the first region to surpass the state-set thresholds for those two metrics at the same time.

The other regions have triggered tougher rules by reaching an 8% positivity rate threshold for three consecutive days. As of Friday, the rolling seven-day positivity rate for the Cook County suburbs was 7.7%.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the stricter rules are needed to slow the recent surge and prevent the state’s health care system from becoming overwhelmed as weather turns colder and flu season takes hold.

With hospitalizations already on the rise, health officials are concerned about the percentage of newly diagnosed patients who may soon end up in the hospital, in intensive-care units and on ventilators, Ezike said.

“But that’s not the end of the story,” she said. “The people who will get exposed to the virus tomorrow has not been determined. And that is where every one of us comes in. With our mask and our clean hands and our physical distancing, we can prevent exposure to this deadly virus.”

Health officials say indoor restaurants and bars carry a higher risk because they have crowds of people socializing in confined areas for extended periods without masks. They note that outbreaks traced to restaurants and bars have occurred in other states.

But Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau, who has frequently criticized Pritzker over his handling of COVID-19 measures, said the governor has created "a constantly moving bar” communities must meet to keep their restaurants open.

He pointed to the county’s hospitalization rate, which remains far below the peak in April and May, as evidence that new restrictions aren’t needed. He added that he doesn’t have the legal authority or the inclination to crack down on any restaurants that might ignore the new order.

“Ask the governor how he’s going to enforce it,” he said. “He’s not going to make me go after my restaurants for trying to earn a living.”

State police have issued citations to four businesses and visited dozens of others to help enforce public health rules, spokeswoman Mindy Carroll said. Additional details about the citations were not immediately available.

Numerous restaurants across the suburbs have announced they plan to stay open regardless of the new restrictions, though Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the group doesn’t support that move.

“We do not advocate any restaurant to disobey the governor’s orders,” he said. “We always care about the safety and health of our team members and guests.”

In far northwest suburban McHenry County, county board Chairman Jack Franks asked to apply mitigation restrictions only to businesses that flout mask and social distancing mandates.

As with prior COVID-19-related restrictions that were overturned, such as church openings or the limit of two people per boat, Franks said this blanket closure should end. He recommended enforcement tied to specific violators, rather than shuttering restaurants while retail businesses are allowed to operate with many more customers.

That discrepancy also aggravated Jim Downing, manager of the 115 Bourbon Street entertainment complex in Merrionette Park.

“It’s hard to understand how every place can be open except bars and restaurants,” he said, noting he’s trying to figure out whether his establishment’s Saturday night Halloween party can proceed. “You go to Home Depot and Walmart and it seems to be no problem there.”

In Rosemont, the village rents out space to restaurants in its entertainment district, and deferred rent payments and renegotiated leases after the spring ban on indoor dining. Despite those measures, Gene & Georgetti’s restaurant announced it was closing its location there.

Michelle Durpetti, part of the third generation of family that owns Gene & Georgetti, said the restaurant faced a $120,000 tax bill and was forced to close Sunday. Employees called her in tears, she said, asking what they could do now.

“I’d love for the governor to look my employees in the face and explain how they are, through no fault of their own, losing their livelihoods,” she said. “This sweeping decision is ruining the lives of so many people. It’s devastating.”

Winnetka-Northfield Chamber of Commerce President Terry Dason said two restaurants in the area — Spirit Elephant, a vegan eatery in Winnetka, and The Happ Inn, a bar and grill in Northfield — recently invested in new ventilation systems to ensure that customers could be safe dining indoors.

That made the halt to indoor dining particularly frustrating, especially given the cost incurred for the improvements, she said.

“We’re all blindsided and heartbroken,” she said. “It’s upsetting and unfortunate for our residents, but it’s absolutely devastating to restaurant owners.”

In nearby Glencoe, Village Manager Phil Kiraly said the governor’s announcement puts in limbo the future of two new greenhouses erected in the village’s downtown business district to accommodate heated, outdoor dining.

“There isn’t real clarity from the state yet on how these structures will be treated, but from our perspective, it’s not any different than the enclosed outdoor dining they have by the wagonfuls and are allowing in Chicago,” he said.

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, who is also leader of the county’s Republican Party, said Pritzker has gone overboard with his response to the pandemic.

“He seems to have a drunken sense of power that’s going on here because nobody’s taking into account all the bad things that are happening as a byproduct of COVID-19 and of these government shutdowns,” Morrison said, detailing the pervasiveness of unemployment, alcoholism, overdoses and suicide during the pandemic.

But his colleague, Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, said caution should carry the day, citing the more than 500 people who have died of COVID-19 in his district.

“You can’t mess with this, so I’m sorry for the people who are having difficulty and are making really courageous decisions in running their businesses, but we’ve got to do this to protect everybody,” he said.

Karen Ann Cullotta

Karen Ann Cullotta is a suburban reporter covering education, municipal government and human interest stories. A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, when Karen’s not reporting, she can usually be found cooking Italian food, digging in her vegetable garden and hanging out with her family.
John Keilman

John Keilman is a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, based in the suburbs. He writes about sports, education, health, drug abuse and many other subjects. Before joining the Tribune in 2001, he worked as a reporter in Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. Tips about strange occurrences, public outrages and inspiring people always welcome.
Robert McCoppin

Robert McCoppin reports on news and trends in Chicago's suburbs, focusing especially on the legalization of marijuana. Having worked at the City News Bureau and Daily Herald before joining the Tribune in 2010, he has covered crime, the courts, flooding, and health, and has won multiple Chicago Headline Club awards.
CONTACT

Jamie Munks covers Illinois government from Springfield. She’s worked at papers in Illinois, Upstate New York, Las Vegas and Memphis. She grew up in Chicago’s northwest suburbs and New England, and has dual bachelor’s degrees in journalism and political science from Syracuse University. In her spare time, she hikes, travels and roots for the Cubs.
Dan Petrella

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.
CONTACT

Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.


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