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Food fight: Pritzker vows to crack down on restaurants ‘helping to spread this disease’ through dining defiance

As Illinois reported another daily record high of nearly 5,000 new coronavirus cases, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said suburban bars and restaurants that don’t follow his order to stop seating customers inside will face stiff penalties.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference in Little Village in July.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference in Little Village in July.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

As Illinois smashed another daily record with 4,942 new coronavirus cases reported Thursday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker threw down the gauntlet to suburban bar and restaurant owners threatening to flout his latest restrictions on indoor drinking and dining.

The Democratic governor issued his harshest warning yet to potential scofflaws before his indoor dining ban goes into effect Friday in Will, Kankakee, Kane and DuPage counties, where COVID-19 infection rates are soaring to new highs.

But some owners say they will still seat customers inside, arguing the latest rollback means a “death sentence” for their businesses after months of struggling to stay afloat while following guidelines and avoiding outbreaks.

“If people are going to force us, because they won’t follow the mitigations, and they’re going to let people get sick in their business, then we’re going to take this very seriously,” Pritzker said at a downstate coronavirus briefing. “If we have to stop them from doing business because they’re helping to spread this disease and get people sick, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

“We are now seeing the entire state is moving up in terms of hospitalizations, in terms of ICU beds, ventilators and death,” Pritzker said, pointing to “dozens of studies” showing bars and restaurants have proven to be fertile grounds for COVID-19 transmission.

The Illinois Department of Public Health attributed 44 more deaths to the virus, while the state’s average seven-day positivity rate has shot up this month more than two full percentage points to 5.7%. And as the state has seen its five largest daily caseloads of the entire pandemic over the last week alone, hospitals across the state are treating the most COVID-19 patients they’ve seen since early June.

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As Pritzker tries to tamp down on the resurgence, dining restrictions will be in place in four of the state’s 11 regions by Friday. With all remaining regions reporting positivity rates of least 7% and rising toward the governor’s 8% threshold — including Chicago and suburban Cook County — more bans soon could be on tap.

“We are being very serious and very focused on having the state police not only issue warnings but also issue citations, if necessary,” Pritzker said.

The governor urged local state’s attorneys to “simply follow through” in prosecuting those monetary citations, while insisting that his administration will look to remove business’ liquor and video gambling licenses if they defy his order. “And this is not something I have wanted to do before,” Pritzker said.

But it’s a chance some restaurant owners say they’re willing to take.

Spiro Roumpas said he plans to keep seating customers indoors at Ki’s Steak and Seafood Restaurant in Glendale Heights. News of the governor’s restrictions on DuPage County threw “a giant gut punch, almost like a death sentence” to Ki’s, after shutting down completely for three full months and then skating by with less than half its normal business, Roumpas said.

Ki’s Steak and Seafood Restaurant in Glendale Heights.
Ki’s Steak and Seafood Restaurant in Glendale Heights.
Provided

So, without any coronavirus cases traced to his restaurant, Roumpas said, he’ll still be following Pritzker’s other dining guidelines that call for masks and social distancing as he continues inviting customers inside.

“I’m not trying to make this an argument between me and the governor. I’m just trying to fight for my business to survive,” Roumpas said. “Let’s face it: we live in Chicago. Last night it was rainy and 40 degrees. Outdoors is not a feasible option.

“COVID is a tragedy. One life lost is a tragedy,” Roumpas said. “In the meantime, we have followed all the guidelines that the governor set out. And the guidelines we have to abide by in normal times make us more sanitary than most places, way more than gas stations or big box stores.”

As for the Pritzker’s potential crackdown on the restaurant his family has run for 40 years, Roumpas said “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Ki’s is poised to join the “hundreds” of other restaurants that have stayed open in other regions slapped with Pritzker’s indoor dining ban, according to attorney Tom DeVore, who’s been behind numerous challenges to governor’s COVID-19 containment measures, including the spring stay-at-home order.

Now, he’s urging all businesses to flout Pritzker’s restrictions.

“An executive order in and of itself is not a law. It’s a guidance,” DeVore said. “The law says you can keep your doors open unless you consent, or a court orders you to close … The court will only order you to close if the state Department of [Public] Health proves that your location has the ‘rona running rampant about it. You know how many business owners in the state have had that happen? Zero.”

The Illinois Restaurant Association slammed Pritzker’s indoor dining restrictions too, noting that DuPage County health officials have reported that only 6% of their outbreaks have been traced to restaurants over the last seven months.

“As the science surrounding COVID-19 has evolved, so must the metrics for mitigation,” restaurant association president Sam Toia said, calling on the governor to implement more “pragmatic” measures such as earlier curfews and lower capacity limits.

Pritzker welcomed the challenge from restaurants such as Ki’s that are advertising their defiance of his indoor dining ban.

“Well, good, then what I say to the public that lives in that area is now you can go look, apparently, at a list places that are not following the rules. You don’t want to go there. That’s where you’re most likely to get COVID-19. Don’t go there.”