URBANA — Less than a week after a Champaign County judge ruled for a second time that a Tolono bar and grill can’t operate without a valid health permit, it’s open again for indoor drinking and dining.
But with a new twist: Lil Buford’s, 102 N. Long St., is open for the public to eat and drink there — provided people buy their food from a food truck or other restaurants and carry it into Lil Buford’s to “borrow” its indoor tables and chairs.
Owner Jeff Buckler said he would be selling pre-packaged beverages starting Tuesday night, and food trucks will be parked outdoors today, Thursday and Friday for people who want to buy food there and eat inside Lil Buford’s.
Buckler contended he’s allowed to open his establishment to people buying their food elsewhere, as long as he doesn’t cook, serve or sell food at Lil Buford’s.
He also said he’s not making any money on this arrangement.
“I’m just trying to prove a point that this whole thing is ridiculous,” he said.
The Champaign County Public Health Department suspended Lil Buford’s health permit last month for serving indoors in defiance of a state COVID-19 mitigation restriction temporarily forbidding indoor service at bars and restaurants.
After Lil Buford’s continued to remain in operation without a valid health permit, Champaign County Judge Ben Dyer first issued a temporary restraining order and then, last Thursday, a preliminary injunction stating the bar and grill couldn’t operate as a food establishment without a valid health permit.
Buckler said he went out to eat recently at a restaurant serving indoors in Piatt County and saw several couples from this area doing the same.
“Everybody is leaving the county to go eat somewhere else,” he said.
Tolono Village President Rob Murphy said Tuesday he’s waiting for guidance from county State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, but plans to keep an eye on Lil Buford’s to see what’s going on there and bring it up at the next village board meeting Jan. 19.
Rietz said Buckler is well aware that he could have his permit back if he agrees to comply with current state rules.
“It is very generous of him to encourage people to take their business and money to his neighboring restaurants who are protecting their staff and customers by limiting their business to carry-out rather than simply agreeing to provide carry-out and get his own license back,” Rietz said. “As far as his decision to serve packaged liquor, that is an issue for the Tolono liquor commission. The overall question of whether Mr. Buckler is in compliance with or in contempt of Judge Dyer’s order remains to be determined.”
Jeff Lancaster, who owns Traxside, 4 E. Holden St., said he’s complying with the health department because, for him, it’s the right thing to do.
Buckler is trying to protect his business, and what he does is his own business, Lancaster said.
“Do I think he should be nicer to the health department? Yes, I do,” he said. “He’s choosing language that he probably shouldn’t choose with those people, and that’s his business.”
Lancaster said Buckler’s current tactic of offering his premises to customers of other restaurants to eat carry-out won’t affect him.
“We’re obviously taking a hell of a hit, but there’s not really much I can do about it,” Lancaster said.
Traxside is currently open Friday and Saturday nights for carry-out, and its Friday night smoked-meat dinners sell out every week, Lancaster said.
Tolono is a beautiful town, he said.
“I’ve got my customer base, and we’re happy with the way things go here,” he said.
Meanwhile, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said Tuesday the liquor and gambling licenses of American Legion Post 71 could be on the line if that establishment is shown to be open for indoor service and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District again suspends its health permit.
She said a notice was seen Monday on the door of the establishment at 107 N. Broadway, U, stating it was open and wouldn’t comply with what it called an unlawful request to close.
Post Commander Bruce Brown Sr. said that notice had been posted earlier and that the post is closed, and while he removed the notice from the front door, he neglected to remove it from the back door.
“I decided I was not going to fight them anymore,” he said.
The health district suspended Post 71’s health permit last month for serving indoors in violation of the state order, but reinstated it Dec. 31 after Brown promised to comply with the ban on indoor service.
The posted notice states that Post 71 was being represented by Tom DeVore, the same lawyer who has represented Lil Buford’s and at least two other Champaign County restaurants that fought the state ban on indoor service and had their health permits suspended.
“Please be advised that should the health department try and close our facility on an immediate basis without specific facts regarding an outbreak upon our premises, or if any of our licensure is wrongly threatened, we may pursue legal damages against the overreaching government agency as well as the specific government employee who takes any such unlawful action,” it states.
Ruth Wyman, the health district’s attorney, said Post 71 was closed when an employee in her office checked around 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Marlin said she’s had two letters from Post 71 promising to stay closed.
The city could take action regarding the Post 71’s liquor license if the health district should find that it is out of compliance and takes action first, Marlin said.
The mayor urged the community to consider that the pandemic isn’t under control.
“We’re trying to keep people alive till we get people vaccinated,” she said.