At an Aug. 10 village council meeting, an ordinance imposing stricter COVID-19 regulations on bars and restaurants was voted down 3-2, effectively tying the village’s hands when it comes to enforcing health and safety restrictions related to the pandemic.
“It sounds like you have no interest in creating an ordinance that allows us to enforce the public health guidelines,” Mayor Rory Hoskins said to commissioners Joe Byrnes, Ryan Nero and Dan Novak after they spoke out against the ordinance. They cast the three opposing votes. Commissioner Jessica Voogd and Hoskins voted in favor of it.
The proposed ordinance was written after Cook County announced new stricter recommendations for businesses on Aug. 3, including that indoor service for taverns selling alcohol and no food be temporarily suspended; only outdoor service would be allowed, as the COVID-19 percent positive rate rose in suburban Cook County.
But according to Hoskins, the proposed ordinance was also a response to the recent village conflict with a Madison Street bar, Lantern Haus, during which the issue of village authority to enforce COVID-related safety regulations came up.
Lantern Haus was served an emergency closure notice on July 24. The bar, according to Hoskins, had violated several local ordinances, including serving alcohol past allowable hours. It was noted in police reports that, at those times, the bar was also in violation of social-distancing regulations. And it was those social-distancing regulations, said Hoskins, that prompted the emergency closure of the bar.
However, after meetings with both village and Lantern Haus attorneys, the village’s ability to enforce social distancing came into question.
“In several meetings with [the attorneys], there was uncertainty as to whether or not the village, under existing laws and regulations, could enforce COVID guidelines,” Hoskins said during the village council meeting.
As a result, village attorneys suggested an ordinance that would make it possible for the village to enforce COVID-related safety guidelines.
Hoskins, who serves as the village’s liquor commissioner in addition to holding the position of mayor, said, “Our attorney suggested we create the ordinance because there was a question about whether the liquor commissioner without expressed authority … could enforce public health guidelines.”
Historically, Hoskins said, the basis for implementing an emergency shutdown of a bar was related to “felony-type offenses,” like gun possession or drugs within a bar, not public health issues.
The proposed ordinance, posted online with the agenda on Thursday of last week, was rewritten and a new version posted on Friday. Two bar owners, Mary Sorice and Joe Sullivan, met with Hoskins to talk about easing up on the restrictions, which originally would have banned bars without food licenses from serving any alcohol indoors. Hoskins had the ordinance rewritten to allow bars to serve indoors, to seated customers only and at 35 percent occupancy. Restaurants would have been required to reduce per-table parties to six people from the 10 allowed under phase four of Illinois’ Restore Illinois plan.
But even with the loosened restrictions in the rewritten ordinance, Byrnes, Nero and Novak voted against it.
Byrnes took issue with not having the amended ordinance until Friday evening and not having any input.
“It was like nobody bothered to call me and ask about it and say, ‘What do you think?'” Byrnes said during the meeting. He also took issue with the fact that the ordinance seemed to only be setting restrictions on bars without food service. “It seems like we’re creating an ordinance for just some people,” he said.
Hoskins said the difference between bars without food and restaurants with tables is how mobile people are when they’re drinking but not eating. At taverns without food, “they get up, stand, sometimes sit at the bar in close contact to one another,” Hoskins said. “In sit-down restaurants, you have tables that are socially distanced, so they lend themselves to more orderly conduct of business.”
Novak said he first heard about the proposed ordinance via social media, and he objected to the fact that it seemed like the ordinance was created because of one business that violated the rules. It seemed, he said, like all the small business owners were being punished for the violation of one.
Nero mentioned the extensive travel he does for work, and how that’s forced him to take safety very carefully.
“I understand quite fully the nature of the pandemic and the personal responsibility for prevention of the spread,” Nero said. But he went on to say, “I really believe this ordinance is an overreach of government, which just imposes more sanctions against the bars and restaurants.”
Nero added, “I ran on a platform to support our small businesses, so I can’t support an ordinance that adds restrictions on an already taxed business community. Our job is to coach the business community to do the right thing and most importantly hold them accountable when they do not.”
But Voogd said that without this ordinance, there is no way to hold businesses accountable.
“We need this ordinance to be able to enforce any consequences for not following the rules,” Voogd said. “I know people are frustrated with the rules and restrictions and being stuck at home, but I would like us to just shift our focus back to what we should be upset about, and it’s a highly contagious virus that is spreading across the country.”
Voogd proposed the council approve the ordinance, give it two weeks until the next meeting, and then adjust and amend it as needed. “It sounds like our bar owners are willing to compromise to keep us safe,” she said.
“It’s not about punishing the bars,” said Hoskins. “It’s about giving us the authority to regulate an important public health concern during the pandemic.”