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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Clair County Ordered A Total Of 7 Bars And Restaurants To Close. More Could Come.

A sign on the door at Reifschneider’s Grill & Grape in Freeburg on Saturday, Dec. 5, says the St. Clair County Health Department “pulled” the restaurant’s food license for violating a ban on indoor dining.
Kelsey Landis
/
Belleville News-Democrat
A sign on the door at Reifschneider’s Grill & Grape in Freeburg on Saturday, Dec. 5, says the St. Clair County Health Department “pulled” the restaurant’s food license for violating a ban on indoor dining.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

The St. Clair County Health Department suspended food or liquor licenses for seven bars and restaurants late last week, and could order more businesses to close if they don’t comply with a statewide ban on indoor service.

The health department suspended licenses for The Nail in New Athens, Reifschneider’s Grill & Grape in Freeburg, Shooters Bar & BBQ and Syberg’s in O’Fallon, George’s Pub in East Carondelet, H’s Bar in Belleville and Lotawata Creek in Fairview Heights.

The establishments have three days to request a hearing challenging the orders, or they can submit a plan explaining how they’ll comply with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s ban on indoor dining and drinking. Outdoor service, carry-out and delivery are still allowed under the restrictions because the virus is known to spread rapidly in enclosed spaces when people aren’t wearing masks.

If the businesses do nothing, they are supposed to remain fully closed through the end of December and pay a $1,000 fine. If they continue operating and ignore the orders, the health department will consult with the state’s attorney’s office for next steps, said St. Clair County Health Department Executive Director Barb Hohlt.

Before suspending licenses, the St. Clair County Health Department called businesses to explain the governor’s orders. Hohlt’s office then issued three written warnings.

“We don’t want to be punitive. If they comply, there is no problem,” she said.

The health department decided to take action as hospitals in the St. Louis region fill up. Public health officials worry the strain on health care systems could become even worse as the full effects from Thanksgiving gatherings become known.

“Bars, restaurants, workplaces and places that are not complying with the orders, all of that is adding to the overcrowding that we’re having in hospitals,” Hohlt said. “In St. Clair County, our COVID-positive cases have been incredible. We have over 200 or 250 each day for the last several weeks.”

On Sunday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 84% of staffed hospital beds in the metro-east were in use as of Saturday, and only 18.6% of the metro-east’s ICU beds were available.

Dwindling hospital capacity is also a problem on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. After a steady uptick in cases, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page ordered a ban on indoor dining and the health department there cracked down on violating businesses.

While nursing homes, churches, factories and other settings contribute to the spread of COVID-19, 9.6% of outbreak locations in the metro-east were traced back to bars or restaurants, according to Illinois Department of Public Health contact tracing data. Because other spreader locations answer to other agencies — and churches are practically untouchable thanks to court protections — bars and restaurants are some of the only establishments local governments can control.

But some proprietors remain defiant, in both St. Louis and the metro-east. Juan Gillam, owner of George’s Pub in East Carondelet, said he’ll stay open despite the county’s order.

“They have no right to take away my way of living. When they quit their job, I’ll quit mine,” Gillam told the Belleville News-Democrat on Friday.

Gillam said he considers the county’s approach unfair. Other bars open for indoor service have yet to be closed down, he said.

But last week’s actions aren’t the end of St. Clair County’s enforcement efforts, Hohlt said.

After receiving a complaint about a business, they’ll continue to educate and warn multiple times before suspending licenses. If they have to, they’ll do it until the virus is controlled — possibly not until a vaccine is widely distributed, Hohlt said.

“We know what we can do now,” Hohlt said. “The vaccine is a little tiny light at the end of the tunnel.”

Kelsey is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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