Illinois moving into next phase of reopening as COVID-19 numbers continue to fall

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As Winnebago County reopens, businesses that sidestep health guidelines will be publicized

ROCKFORD — Winnebago County businesses that do not comply with state public health guidelines may find their names published on the county health department’s website beginning Friday, when Illinois moves to Phase 4 of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is not to shame business owners, but to keep the public safe by letting them know which businesses may not be compliant with public health guidelines, said health department Administrator Sandra Martell during a news conference Monday.

A restaurant, bowling alley, movie theater or some other public business or establishment could find its name on the health department’s website if, for example, its workers are caught not wearing masks or if they’re violating guidelines for limited-capacity indoor dining.

The department often receives phone calls or emails from the public about businesses that are out of step with state public health guidelines, Martell said. Her department employs investigators who verify those complaints. Any business listed on the department’s website would land there only after a health department investigator validates a complaint about the business.

“If we go into the establishment and they are not wearing masks – that is a validated complaint,” Martell said.

“I’m sure no one’s going to want to be on that list. But again, the way that you don’t get on that list is to follow the guidelines and be in step with the rest of the community.”

Illinois enters the fourth of Gov. JB Pritzker’s five-phase reopening plan on Friday as new cases of the novel coronavirus continue to decline in the state.

There were 462 new, confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, in Illinois on Monday, according to the state Department of Public Health. That’s the fewest new cases in a 24-hour period since 461 cases on March 30, when roughly 16,000 fewer daily tests were performed.

The move into Phase 4 allows for indoor dining at restaurants with capacity restrictions and other precautions and the opening of movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers with capacity limits and social-distancing requirements.

Mike Zahniser, owner of Maximum Performance Training in Rockford, is eager to welcome back clients. His business has been offering online training during the statewide shutdown. When it reopens, clients will notice markers to help them keep social distance as they train, among other changes in place because of the ongoing pandemic.

“It usually takes three or four weeks to create a habit,” Zahniser said of restarting in-person training. “The last three to four weeks being off have really changed habits for all of us.”

The governor’s office released reopening guidance on Monday morning, and the health department held a news conference later that afternoon detailing its plans for the compliance list.

The health department will work with owners to remove their business from the department’s online list of violators once they take corrective steps, Martell said. Her staff would first need to revisit the business to ensure guidelines are being observed and that the business has a plan to ensure the safety of its workforce and its patrons. The department has the power to fine and even close businesses that fail to comply with public health codes, she said.

The Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau has taken a different approach to informing the public about which business may be safe to patronize, inviting business owners to sign an online “Clean Hands, Open Doors” pledge.

Participants promise to adhere to guidelines for hand-washing, face coverings, social distancing and frequent surface sanitizing, among other measures meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. More than a hundred private businesses and government and civic organizations in Winnebago, Boone and Stephenson counties have taken the voluntary pledge.

Winnebago County has made good progress preventing the spread of coronavirus, Martell said. The health department reported 19 new cases of the virus in Winnebago County on Monday. Eighty-five people in Winnebago County have died from the virus, though no new deaths were reported Monday. There have been 2,903 total cases in the county.

Statewide, there have been 137,224 cases and 6,671 deaths from COVID-19, according to IDPH.

The county’s positivity rate is 9.7% — well below the 20% threshold. The recovery rate among Winnebago County residents who have contracted the virus is 94% for those 42 days past diagnosis.

County Board Chairman Frank Haney urged the public to keep its guard up as businesses throughout Illinois begin to reopen and life returns to something a bit closer to normal.

“If we are going to take things like social distancing, washing hands seriously and respecting these basic, blocking-and-tackling fundamentals, we are going to position our community, our families and our co-workers very well,” he said. “… Please, please, double down.”

Staff writer Kevin Haas contributed to this report.

Isaac Guerrero:; @isaac_rrs

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