McHenry County businesses that violate COVID-19 rules could avoid court under proposal

 
 
Updated 11/25/2020 9:49 AM

Business owners facing fines for breaking the state's COVID-19 rules -- including the ban on indoor dining -- could go through an expedited adjudication process instead of the courts under a proposal approved by the McHenry County Board of Health on Monday.

The McHenry County Board still needs to consider the proposal, which centers on creation of an administrative adjudication program that would allow the McHenry County Department of Health to process violations of COVID-19 restrictions for businesses more efficiently.

 

The resolution is a slightly modified version of a program proposal the board approved in September, which talked about simplifying the process of enforcing other public health ordinances, such as illegal burning or food service violations, Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson said.

The earlier proposal does not mention COVID-19 violations, while this new version does, stating the coronavirus pandemic has "exacerbated the need for an expedited process to resolve violations of public health ordinances and administrative code."

Having violations flow through a "hearing officer" or adjudicator, rather than the circuit court system, would allow for the same level of judicial review while cutting costs and gaining compliance more quickly, according to the health department's proposal.

The proposal states that administrative adjudication would be used "for time-critical violations, and for those violations that directly negatively impact the quality of life for neighbors and neighborhoods."

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The health department's environmental division has received 55 complaints of restaurants and bars violating restrictions on indoor dining since the county entered Tier 1 on Oct. 31, Director of Environmental Health Patricia Nomm said in the meeting Monday.

Of those complaints, the division has followed up and issued initial violation notices to 24 businesses, Nomm said. They have issued second notices to 12 businesses and have referred 11 of those complaints to the McHenry County state's attorney's office for review and, possibly, further action.

"I would love to say that the enforcement options are simple and they're straightforward, but, unfortunately, that's just not the case," Nomm said.

The resolution, which was passed unanimously, will now go to McHenry County's Public Health and Community Services Committee.

It was submitted for consideration at the committee's meeting Tuesday morning, but committee chairman Chris Christensen said it would be better for newly elected board members to be allowed to weigh in next month.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The new board members will be sworn in Dec. 7 and new committee appointments will be decided, according to the county board rules.

If the resolution is passed through committee, the new board will need to decide whether they want to make an additional appropriation of $50,000 to $75,000 to start the program.

The health department will use this money to contract an adjudicator, records manager and to provide administrative support to the adjudicator, according to the proposal.

This funding would cover the first year of the program, according to the proposal. The revenue made from fines and fees is expected to cover operating costs moving forward.

Establishing the program is expected to take two to four months, meaning it is far from the quick response to streamline enforcement that McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks called for at the board's last committee of the whole meeting.

"I'm disappointed in it," Franks said of the health department's response to his request in an interview Tuesday.

At the Nov. 12 meeting, four Democratic board members joined Franks in expressing a need for a faster enforcement response toward restaurants and bars in noncompliance.

Christensen, a Republican, said people also are getting COVID-19 at their homes, not just at restaurants, "so unless you're going to start legislating that, I think you're just penalizing one group of citizenry."

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