Coronavirus didn't take long to school Mayor Jim Langfelder and Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter.
Both sounded like politicians as they pitched the absurd on Election Day: We are, they posited, not defying the governor by refusing state orders to close bars and sit-down restaurants, it's just mitigation of a different stripe. We'll keep everything open and check back in a couple weeks, and we'll get serious about masks and social distancing. "If we see a significant spike over where we are right now, the experiment's over and we immediately go into the full mitigation," Van Meter told reporters.
Within days, the county was shattering infection records while deaths surged, which should not have surprised Langfelder. He'd predicted that numbers won't go down anytime soon due to Halloween and house parties. Nonetheless, one week after declaring bars and dining rooms would remain open, the county and city reversed course, declaring that we will, beginning Friday, Nov. 13, do what the state says we should have started doing nearly two weeks ago. Perhaps in a week, we'll know whether guinea pigs got sick from the city and county's experiment.
Where's evidence that the virus spreads in bars and restaurants, bar owners and their patrons in public office have asked. That's like demanding proof that the moon isn't made of cheese, given that astronauts didn't land everywhere.
The science is straightforward: Viruses spread when people gather. Calculus is complex, so politicians squirm as they try to keep gathering spots afloat in a bathtub with drain wide open. Truth is uncomfortable: What kind of city behaves as if bars are lifeblood?
Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory sounded the wisest council member last week when he and his colleagues approved $50 citations for the maskless. "America's starting to feel what it's like to be broke – America's starting to really get a taste of what it's like where I come from," Gregory observed. "Everybody's losing their mind."
Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath, for instance. He won't wear a mask at council meetings even while voting to fine people caught without masks in stores and other public places. He says he's seen no indication that the virus spreads in bars and restaurants. "It's not fair to single out one industry," he declared in a rising voice on Tuesday, prompting Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso, who chaired the gathering via Zoom, to cut him off. "You're yelling," DiCenso observed. "I'm allowed to call for order."
Last week, Redpath told colleagues that he patronizes bars and restaurants but doesn't want to tattle – as a former cop, he must not have gotten far in the snitch biz. People are free to avoid bars and restaurants, Redpath says, and not wearing a mask to council meetings is OK because social distancing, from where he sits, is sufficient. Plexiglass separated him from colleagues but not spectators, who were required to wear masks.
I was at the council meeting because it's my job. I otherwise would steer clear of anyone who won't wear a mask, frequents bars, is reluctant to report the irresponsible and yells while the virus spreads and experts warn that loud talking and singing can propel dangerous droplets into the air.
There's a chance that Redpath's colleagues might force him to mask, or at least pay, up. The mayor says he'll ask the council to pass an emergency ordinance next week allowing police to issue $50 tickets to maskless people found in any building open to the public, including city hall. The council last week approved a measure allowing such fines for people caught unmasked in retail establishments and bars and restaurants, which at that point weren't faced with closure. Would Langfelder's new proposal apply to council members? The mayor said he didn't know. Will city cops issue fines in state office buildings? The mayor said he didn't know. How many $50 fines have been issued under the ordinance that passed last week? The mayor said he didn't know.
Vegas has the over-under on no-mask tickets issued by Springfield cops at 20 during the first week. I took the under, figuring past predicates future.
Heading into winter, we're the grasshopper that partied while the ant stored food. Nations that did better sooner have kids in classrooms instead of funeral homes, saying goodbye to Grandma. Columbia University researchers last month calculated that as many as 210,000 U.S. deaths could have been prevented if politicians had done a better job.
If the city had yanked liquor licenses in July instead of waiting until October to fine a handful of bars $500 for violating mask requirements and social-distancing protocols, perhaps proprietors would have gotten serious about battling the virus and fewer people would have gotten sick. When I brought this up to the mayor, Langfelder went politician, pointing out that he pulled The Wet Bar's liquor license in September; I observed that he did it only after someone was shot on the street outside. The police chief last week told the council that cops recently checked and didn't find any gas stations or stores where public health directives weren't obeyed. Let's just say the chief doesn't live in my neighborhood.
If we'd taken tougher steps sooner, maybe the virus wouldn't be spreading like an oil slick, and bars and dine-in restaurants could stay open. But now? It's like demanding dessert when you haven't touched your spinach.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.