The unincorporated parts of Crawford County can get “Back to Business” today.
The Crawford County Board Thursday voted 7-3 to approve the regional Back to Business plan supported by the local health department and five others. The vote was split because the motion called for the county to enter the plan in its third and final phase.
That means retailers, restaurants, bars and exercise facilities in unincorporated areas can reopen at 75 percent capacity with restrictions. Churches and other businesses in those parts of the county can reopen at full capacity with restrictions. Public meetings can be open to up to 50 people.
Restrictions may include required social distancing, handwashing, disinfecting of surfaces, facemasks, service by appointment only and others.
Some said they feared the board would be taking a risk starting with phase 3.
“I would discourage you from jumping to phase 3,” Crawford County Health Department Nursing Supervisor Jenna Thompson said, warning the plan will not work as well as a result.
Others, such as board member Kevin Dart, countered that she couldn’t know that for certain. He said the move sends a message to Springfield that southeastern Illinois — and Crawford County — are ready to move on.
He and others also said the move is needed to help local small businesses, such as hair salons, which have gone without income for two months.
This only applies to businesses outside Robinson, Oblong, Palestine, Hutsonville and Flat Rock.
The board meeting, conducted in the Robinson Community Center, lasted almost four hours. During that time, dozens of county residents picketed outside, calling for the county to be reopened.
The protest was peaceful, but the meeting wasn’t always. There was confusion. There was anger. After about 40 minutes it looked as if the meeting might come to a premature end without any business being conducted at all.
Early on, board member Jonathon Goff made a motion to let more of the people outside come into the meeting.
Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order, meetings are supposed to be limited to 10 people. On the advice of Dr. Robert Walsh of the health department, Chairman David Fulling had opened it up to 20.
However, at least 35 members of the crowd indicated they would like to address the board and question health department representatives present to discuss the Back to Business plan.
Fulling said they could call in via a teleconference link. Some did. Goff and Dart maintained that the people had a right to speak in person at the open meeting.
There was talk of letting people in one at a time. It was also suggested taking the session outdoors, but County Clerk Fayrene Wright said her recording equipment was insufficient to capture the voices of speakers outside.
There was also concern about letting people inside the community center. The City of Robinson, which donated its use, has kept tight limits on who has been allowed to enter for the past several weeks.
At an impasse, Fulling considered calling for a motion to adjourn. Instead, the board recessed until State’s Attorney Matthew Hartrich could arrive in person to offer advice. Hartrich had been attending via a teleconference link, as most elected officials have done during recent board meetings.
“You’re opening up Pandora’s box,” a man told the board, warning shutting down a public meeting without giving anyone a chance to speak could lead to legal action.
The situation was defused when it was suggested people could use the community center public address system, speaking on a microphone that was taken to the building’s front door.
Many of the speakers worked for hair salons. Another was a dentist. One was the owner of a charitable organization that provides free clothing to people in need and one represented Mikeworth’s Swap Meet.
They pointed out they closed their businesses voluntarily and were now being told they could not reopen. There were inconsistencies in how the health department handled matters, some said. Some complained the department had failed to follow up on offers to help establish a reopening plan. Others said they were “threatened” with the loss of their licenses by the department if they reopened.
“We’re trying very hard to get our county back to work as quickly and as safely as possible,” Thompson said.
“We are not going to close anyone down,” Public Health Administrator Darla Tracy said. “All we want to do is provide guidance and make sure they are doing it [reopening] correctly.”
It was debated whether CCHD had told or requested barber Tim Bennett to shut down after he temporarily reopned his shop last week.
Walsh and board of health President Kayla Blank apologized if anyone had felt threatened by the department.
“We will make sure it will not happen again,” Blank said, vowing she would get everyone in the department on the same page.
“Please do what you can right now,” Goff said. He had been prepared to call for a vote of no confidence in the health department, but after seeing the latest version of Back to Business and hearing Blank’s comments, he changed his mind.
Board member Don Goupil was sympathetic to health officials. Pointing out that, as humans facing a bad situation beyond their experience, they were bound to make mistakes. “I can only imagine the hell you’re going through,” he said.
County businessman Bill Burke, who organized the protest, asked that the department be held accountable, adding some employees had ridiculed the protesters on Facebook during the meeting.
Walsh said the CCDH has taken no action against local businesses, but it does report to the Illinois Department of Public Health when someone complains about possible violations, which in turn reports to the governor.
Pritzker had threatened to pull the state licenses of businesses that reopen too soon and withholding federal money from counties that permit it.
State Rep. Chris Miller arrived and blasted Pritzker for using “intimidation and fear” in an effort to make political gains during the crisis.
“It’s important we remember we’re a free people,” he said.
Another speaker pointed out that due process is required to take the license from a business. That requires proving to a regulatory body that the business has violated state law.
Executive orders, he said, are not laws, so Pritzker has no legal authority to pull any licenses.
And questions remain if Pritzker’s orders are even constitutional.
Earlier in the day, Burke hosted a meeting of local business owners with a representative from the office of attorney Thomas DeVore. DeVore represented State Rep. Darren Bailey in his lawsuit claiming the Pritzker’s violated the state constitution when he extended his order beyond its original 30 days.