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County officials talk enforcement, say large gatherings also contributed to Region 1 COVID-19 resurgence

Mark Pietrowski Jr., chairman DeKalb County Board, speaks Monday during one of two public hearings held at the Egyptian Theater in DeKalb. This was the only opportunity for the public to give input on the on the DeKalb County wind ordinance draft that the DeKalb County Planning and Zoning Committee passed last month.
Mark Pietrowski Jr., chairman DeKalb County Board, speaks Monday during one of two public hearings held at the Egyptian Theater in DeKalb. This was the only opportunity for the public to give input on the on the DeKalb County wind ordinance draft that the DeKalb County Planning and Zoning Committee passed last month.

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DeKalb County Public Health Administrator Lisa Gonzalez said Oct. 2 that while indoor dining at restaurants and bars is closing in the county’s health region, there’s another aspect that will be impacted due to COVID-19 resurgence mitigations.

“We need to look hard at nonessential gatherings,” Gonzalez said. “Do they need to happen right now?”

At a virtual town hall hosted by DeKalb County Board chairperson Mark Pietrowski, Gonzalez spoke about enforcement of the upcoming mitigation being put into place for DeKalb County’s health region. She and Pietrowski also brought up about large events as a source of spread of the novel coronavirus. As part of the mitigations, gatherings of 25 or more will be prohibited.

When Northern Illinois University went to online classes for two weeks beginning Sept.11, large parties and gatherings were cited as a main cause of the spread.

Gonzalez said anyone attending a large gathering should be very wary of social distancing guidelines.

“We have been able to tie activity locally to large gatherings,” Gonzalez said. “It’s very diverse. It could be a large gathering like spontaneously in the backyard where there’s not social distancing or masks. Or it could be a large, permitted event. We really encourage organizers to let us know their requests in advance so we can help with the guidelines. I think a lot of times we’re not notified purposefully in advance because they don’t want to know the answer we’ll give.”

It’s not just informal gatherings, she said. Pietrowski said events given permits by the city or county can also experience poor social distancing and mask wearing.

“We really need everyone to be very conscious of large events and how they could be an issue,” Pietrowski said. “I think there was an event in DeKalb, there was about 400 that gathered and not that many were in masks. There have been other issues around the county of people doing spontaneous gatherings, in parking lots or outside, not following the guidelines and not wearing masks. Those things need to stop to lower positivity rates.”

Pietrowski said he didn’t know the specific event in his example. But Greg Maurice, director of health protection with the county, said he was referring to the Wehrli Truck Pull on Sept. 19, though he said health officials were unaware of any specific cases tied to the event.

Gonzalez said enforcement of the new restrictions, as with any guidelines that have been in place since the start of the pandemic, will be in the purview of the health department, a sentiment echoed by DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith.

“We have no intention of directing the police department to enforce any of this,” Smith said. “This is the response as Lisa has alluded to is the responsibility of the DeKalb County Health Department.”

Gonzalez said enforcement is based on complaints the department receives. In the past, she said most establishments have abided after an initial phone call notifying them of a violation.

“Early on there was a lot of confusion,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of what we do is education-oriented, which is really our primary role. I do not send inspectors out looking for problems. It’s complaint-driven.”

Gonzalez said the state notified the region early last week that it was on trend for the mitigation to happen. They had been working with the state to determine what the mitigation would look like.

Gonzalez said when the department does contract tracing, bars and restaurants are usually in the top three most visited places.

Seven restaurant and bar owners filed a lawsuit against Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health director Ngozi Ezike Thursday, with an emergency restraining order to delay mitigations and allow indoor dining.

The order was denied by DeKalb County Judge Bradley Waller Friday, though the lawsuit – which alleges the governor’s application of emergency powers is “unfair,” in that it punishes counties that are in compliance with public health thresholds.

“They have tried it in other regions that have been put into this mitigation period and this strategy has had some success,” Gonzalez said. “A lot people have contacted me or members of my team for more info on specific outbreaks in restaurants or bars. While we can’t tie specific cases to specific establishments, we can say there is widespread community spread.”

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