Illinois health departments take a new approach to shut down restaurants

Coronavirus

ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Ill. – Seven restaurants in St. Clair County have faced recent aggressive actions from the local health department and more actions are coming soon. It’s a new approach to shutting down indoor dining.

Restaurants defying indoor dining orders did not think Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s order was enforceable. Then the St. Clair County Health Department started stripping businesses of their food licenses.

“You have a very small segment of county health departments, and it’s 6 or 7 out of the 102 at this point, St. Clair County being one of them, that’s saying, ‘Well, we’re not closing or making your business off limits to the public, we’re just gonna suspend your food license,’” said attorney Tom DeVore.

DeVore is fighting the latest attempts to shut down indoor dining.

“The suggestion is they can still use their bar or restaurant to teach typewriter maintenance I guess, but you’re not closed and off limits to the public to where we have to follow the law,” he said. “‘We’re just telling you, you don’t have a food license.’ It’s a big work around.”

The list of restaurants suspended since last week is:

  • Reifschneider’s in Freeburg
  • Shooters and Syberg’s in O’Fallon
  • George’s Pub in East Carondelet
  • H’s Bar in Belleville
  • The Nail in New Athens
  • Lotawata Creek in Fairview Heights

St. Clair County Health Department Executive Director Barb Hohlt said we may see more suspensions in the days and weeks to come.

“There are more. We are getting complaints all the time,” Holt said. “We are following up with those as soon as we can and again working with local law enforcement and the state’s attorney’s office.”

James C. Johnson, owner of Moore’s Restaurant in Belleville, fears he’s next.

“I’m almost waiting for it,” he said. “I never went into it to violate rules, regs, laws. I simply want to keep this place open.”

Johnson recently took over ownership of this Belleville staple that’s been open 35 years. He does not think he’ll survive the suspension he fears is coming.

“I may never be able to reopen this again and being two weeks, 17 days until the Christmas holiday, that’s not fair,” he said. “Every day could be our last day.”

Attorney DeVore believes judges will side with restaurants because, by definition, “food handling” does not change during an indoor dining ban.

“It’s exactly the same whether you’re selling it to somebody sitting at a table or whether you’re putting it in a box and sending it out the door,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the food, so that’s a ruse. We’ve got to get in front of the court and hopefully we’ll get there quickly.”

FOX 2 asked the health department, “How is it a food handling issue?”

“Food sanitation is protecting the public’s health,” Hohlt said. “So, when they’re violating mitigation orders specifically directed to control COVID, which is a communicable disease, this is a violation of food sanitation ordinance.”

We may learn more this week in the courtroom. The health department said restaurants stripped of their food licenses can reopen for curbside service if they can show their safety plan. A couple of restaurants targeted have done that and it’s under review right now.

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