CHAMPAIGN — Local health officials have begun following up on their warnings to bars and restaurants that have continued to serve indoors in defiance of a state order intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District suspended the food permit of Apple Dumplin’, 2014 N. High Cross Road, U, late last week and has now turned the matter over to the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office after that restaurant continued to operate without a permit, according to Sarah Michaels, food program manager for the health district.
Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Banach declined to comment on the status of the case later Wednesday.
Michaels said she also suspended the food permit for Merry Ann’s Diner, 1510 S. Neil St., C, on Wednesday after issuing a suspension notice last week, obtaining an agreement from the restaurant to comply and then finding that it had reopened Wednesday for indoor dining.
Some businesses have responded in a threatening manner to enforcement action, Michaels said.
But several others that were visited by health district officials and warned about the loss of their food permits have decided to comply and stop indoor service, she said.
Among them was Jeff Buckler, owner of Buford’s Pub in Sadorus and Lil’ Buford’s in Tolono.
Buckler posted Wednesday afternoon on Facebook that he’d been visited by the health district and had decided to stop indoor service.
Buckler said he was visited by Jim Roberts, the health district’s environmental health director.
“He said my food permit would be gone if I didn’t comply and go back to carry-out,” Buckler said.
He decided to comply, Buckler said, but he was still waiting later Wednesday to speak to his lawyer.
Buckler said suspending indoor service means he’ll need to lay off 17 of his 20 employees, and he expects to lose 75 percent of his business.
“We could put up tents and waste money, or just have all my employees file for unemployment, which isn’t enough to live on,” Buckler said in his Facebook post. “Hard choices! I choose to live to fight another day. Keep some money coming in to my full-time employees.”
Apple Dumplin’ owner Jim Flaningam halted indoor service at least temporarily Wednesday morning and called his lawyer.
He couldn’t be reached later in the day about how he planned to proceed.
Flaningam said earlier Wednesday that he didn’t believe the health district had the authority to remove his food permit and that a judge would need to order the suspension, but Michaels said that’s not the case.
Flaningam also contended it’s not illegal for him to serve indoors, and he believes the Legislature would have had to pass a law banning indoor service beyond the original deadline of the original emergency order Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued in March.
Flaningam said the health district told him Dec. 3 that his food permit would be suspended, but he had passed his inspection without issues Nov. 24.
“To me, it doesn’t matter,” he said about his food permit being suspended. “Even if they did, they did it wrongly.”
Flaningam said Apple Dumplin’ has enforced capacity limits, sanitized and maintained 6-foot distances in its dining room.
“I’m standing up for my employees,” he said. “I’m not going to lay these people off three weeks before Christmas.”
Flaningam also said he’s lost 60 percent of his sales this year, and his business model doesn’t work well selling for carry-out only.
He’s the “little guy” in this scenario, Flaningam contended.
“They come after us because we’re the easy ones,” he said. “We don’t have the money to fight back.”
The health district sent out letters a few weeks ago to about 25 Champaign County businesses that were continuing to violate the state’s COVID-19 mitigation restrictions, warning that their food permits, liquor licenses and gambling permits were on the line if they continued to serve indoors.
Now it’s is doing exactly what it said it would, Administrator Julie Pryde said.
Health experts say indoor service at bars and restaurants is hazardous at a time COVID-19 is spreading widely, because customers — even when they are seated 6 feet away from each other — must remove their masks to eat and drink in an enclosed space.
“It’s not safe at this time,” Pryde said.