Rockford, Illinois News

Bars threaten to sue Winnebago County Health Department over COVID-19 restrictions

ROCKFORD — A lawyer representing three local bars has sent a cease and desist letter to the Winnebago County Health Department, accusing Director Dr. Sandra Martell of intimidation tactics in the enforcement of the state’s latest COVID-19 restrictions.

Attorney Thomas DeVore, of Greenville, Illinois, sent the letter on behalf of Fozzy’s Bar & Grill, Casey’s Pub–both in Loves Park–and Nora’s Place in South Beloit. They are among 30 establishments being investigated by the health department for reportedly violating state restrictions.

“Some clients have received a notice of non-compliance for alleged violation of rule 690.50, DeVore wrote in the Oct. 6 letter. “I have further viewed your press release wherein you personally attempt to intimidate my clients, as well as other business owners, with some indeterminable authority you purport to arbitrarily wield.”

DeVore met with more than 100 people at Giovanni’s Oct. 1, telling bar and restaurant owners they are under no obligation to cease indoor services. He continued in the letter that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s order does not constitute law and that Martell has no legal authority to enforce it.

“I ask that you cease and desist from taking any further action unless the same is specifically authorized by law,” he said. “First and foremost, I find it necessary to point out that with all the tactics of intimidation I have witnessed in the last couple of months against the good people of this state, your actions against my clients by publicly listing their business names as an alleged law breakers tops the list. Your actions are not only defamatory but border on criminal intimidation.”

The letter demands that Martell remove from the health department’s website, names of businesses that have been issued notices of non-compliance and that her office stop investigating DeVore’s clients. The attorney said if that doesn’t happen, he will pursue legal again.

“Unless your department has recently been delegated the full power of the legislature, we find no purpose for your tactics, other than to be another tool of intimidation being wielded against the small businesses of Illinois by the executive branch,” he said.

Martell responded Wednesday, releasing a statement saying she has no plans to alter her office’s procedures.

“It is extremely disappointing that a very small number of restaurants/bars in our community sought legal guidance from a representative outside of our community,” she said in the release. “At the press (Monday, Oct.5) press briefing, I reported on 30 establishments that had had complaints reported since Saturday (October 3, 2020) with the start of Executive Order #2020-56 and these complaints would be validated before a Notice of Non-Compliance would be issued. I have had no personal interaction with any of the establishments cited in this letter. The Winnebago County Health Department will continue its Enforcement Procedures as outlined and posted on the health department website. These procedures were in place before the issuance of the Executive Order #2020-56 available”

The City of Rockford also released a statement, saying while restaurants and bar owners and their employees are unnecessarily taking the brunt of the latest COVID-19 restrictions, it will enforce the governor’s edict.

“We will follow the most recent Executive Order which prohibits indoor dining in our region,” the city posted on Facebook. “In coordination with the Winnebago County Health Department, the City has established a procedure for investigating and responding to citizen complaints. The goal is to achieve compliance and is not meant to be punitive. If a business is determined to be in violation of the executive order, staff will provide education and assistance on corrective action. If upon follow-up inspection the business is still in violation, staff will issue a notice of non-compliance.”

A third offense will result in a dispersal order and issuance of a notice to appear at an administrative hearing for violation of city ordinance, which may result in a fine. Other penalties could include liquor license suspensions and mandatory closures.

“The City will also take appropriate steps to ensure compliance of other stores and businesses that have not been negatively impacted by the recent mitigation order. Those that are permitted to remain open owe a duty to follow basic safety requirements so that negatively impacted businesses can reopen as soon as possible,” the post said.

Part of Region 1 of the Restore Illinois Resurgence Plan, Winnebago County saw a COVID-19 seven-day positivity rate of 10% Wednesday.The Region as a whole was at 8.6%.

To return to the relaxed restrictions in Phase 4 of the Restore plan, the region’s positivity rate must be below 6.5% for three consecutive days. The latest restrictions began Oct. 3 and are expected to last at least two weeks.

The 30 establishments under investigation by health officers are Baking Grounds, Machesney Park; Casey’s Pub, Loves Park; City Buffet, Rockford; Filling Station, Rockford; Fozzy’s, Loves Park; Francesco’s, Rockford; Fear Fest, South Beloit; Giovanni’s, Rockford; Greenfire, Rockford; Golden Corral, Loves Park; Irish Rose Saloon, Rockford; Jessica’s Restaurant, Roscoe; J.J. Deli, Rockford; LimaMar, Rockford; Marc’s Fusion Cafe, Rockford; Mustangs, South Beloit; My Place, Rockford; Neighbors, Loves Park; North Main Bar, Rockford; Nora’s Place, South Beloit; Omakase, Rockford; Rust Belt Bar and Grill, Durand; Scanlan’s, Rockford; Savoy Lounge, Rockford; Sophia’s, Roscoe; The Detour, Loves Park; Toni’s Pizza, Winnebago; Town Hall, Loves Park; Taco Betty’s, Rockford; and Vintage 501, Rockford.

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