Owner of downstate ‘superspreader’ bar says he followed the law: ‘You can’t make them wear masks’
Owner Ryan Garrett said of the “30 to 40” that attended the grand opening, “most were just close friends or acquaintances.” No one was turned away if they refused to wear a mask or social distance.
VILLA GROVE, Ill. — The bar is officially named the Embarras, because it’s barely a bottle cap’s throw from the Embarras River in central Illinois.
But in this rural community some 160 miles south of Chicago, everyone just calls it “the bar.”
And now, whether locals like it or not, it’s known as the site of a coronavirus “superspreader” event.
On a bitterly cold February night, residents lined up for the opening of the bar, one of the few establishments in town for locals to gather for some fun after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Owner Ryan Garrett said of the “30 to 40” that attended the grand opening, “most were just close friends or acquaintances.”
No one was turned away if they refused to wear a mask or social distance.
“You can’t make them wear masks,” Garrett told the Sun-Times on Tuesday. “You can’t throw customers out for not wearing a mask.
“But we encourage it. We have hand sanitizer and masks available, we space out all our tables, and we’ve never been filled to capacity of a hundred since we opened.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, those precautions fell far short.
The Feb. 5 event at the bar led to 46 residents contracting COVID-19 and the closure of the town’s school system of more than 650 students 11 days later, according to a CDC report released Monday.
Of those infected by spread of the coronavirus at the indoor event with “no outside air flow” were 26 patrons, three staff members and 17 “secondary cases” among individuals who didn’t attend the event.
Five school-age children, two student athletes and two residents of a long-term care facility — one of whom was briefly hospitalized — were among that latter group.
Four of those infected had “COVID-19-like symptoms” the same day they attended the event.
The CDC did not name the bar in its report, only describing it as a “rural Illinois bar.”
Garrett initially denied his tavern was the one in the widely publicized CDC report.
“I can assure you that our bar was not responsible for a COVID outbreak” he wrote in a Facebook post late Monday. “No one that owns or works at this bar transmitted COVID to anyone.”
But in an interview with the Sun-Times the following day, Garrett first said that he “didn’t know if we’re the bar” the CDC cited and eventually admitted that his business had held the superspreader event.
“The CDC said it was a bar opening in Villa Grove, and we’re the only bar in Villa Grove that opened in February, so you can make a guess,” he said while complaining about the CDC report.
Garrett bought the bar last August but wasn’t allowed to open his doors to the public until that subzero February night.
The community around the bar has been a hotbed of anti-mask sentiment and local officials unafraid to buck Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The town of just over 2,000 sits in Douglas County, where Sheriff Joshua Blackwell made headlines across the state last year for refusing to enforce any of Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders, earning him a rebuke from the governor.
“I feel badly for the people of that county that they have somebody who doesn’t recognize that this is a worldwide and very virulent virus, that is ... not going away,” Pritzker said at the time.
The Douglas County state’s attorney backed up Blackwell, saying she would not prosecute any business that defied the governor’s orders.
“I think the possibility of criminal prosecution in Douglas County is one of least concerns a business or church faces in making a reopening decision, in light of the civil-liability issues and threatened license revocations being espoused by the governor,” State’s Attorney Kate Watson said last year.
Blackwell and Watson didn’t immediately respond to the Sun-Times on Tuesday.
Garrett said he “didn’t have an opinion” on Pritzker’s shutdown except to say that he “followed the law.”
But he did have harsh words for Chicagoans trying to involve themselves in the affairs of rural Illinois.
“We don’t want Chicago telling us what to do. It may work for them but not really for us out here. They should just leave us all alone,” he said.
Following the event at The Embarras bar, Douglas County’s seven-day average of coronavirus positivity shot up from 6.3% to 11.2% on Feb. 16, the highest of any county in Illinois at the time.
On Feb. 16. Villa Grove Schools Supt. Carol Munson sent a letter to parents announcing that their children would not return to school for two weeks to contain the spread.
“As of this morning in-person learning was no longer feasible,” Munson wrote.
At least seven school-age children contracted COVID-19 from the spread traced to the bar, according to the CDC report.
A parent of a student in the Villa Grove school system spoke to the Sun-Times on the condition that her name not be used because she feared backlash in her community for speaking out.
“The bar put out a statement saying it’s not their business, which everyone knows is not true,” she said.
She was glad that Villa Grove schools closed for two weeks, saying their handling throughout the pandemic has been “excellent.”
But she complained that her local health department doesn’t enforce CDC guidelines.
“They don’t check to see how many people are in businesses. There are no mask mandates. When restaurants and bars were supposed to be closed except for pickup, there were still several that were open like there was nothing going on,” she said. “There’s hardly anywhere that mandates masks. It’s pathetic.”
Back at the Embarras, Garrett said that after the superspreader event, the Douglas County Health Department “wanted to test people at the door.”
“And I’m like, ‘That’s a little weird.’ ”