Pandemic hits bars

Owners support public notice

Two bar owners who've shut down after employees tested positive for coronavirus say they wouldn't have a problem with public officials issuing announcements when servers or other employees get infected.

"I think it's the public's right to know," says Scott Weitekamp, owner of Crows Mill Pub, which closed on June 28, about five hours after he learned that a bartender who'd served a jammed beer garden with a capacity of 250 a few days earlier had tested positive. "I guarantee you: There's a lot of places where people have tested positive and they're not sharing that."

Weitekamp said he also supports fines for businesses where employees have a high degree of contact with the public and work without masks. "If you're serving the public, you need to wear a mask, period," he said.

Weitekamp said that he required his employees to get tested after rumors sprang up on social media. The Sangamon County Department of Public Health doesn't automatically notify employers if a bar or restaurant employee tests positive. "Generally, the person who's positive tells the employer," said Gail O'Neill, health department director. "If they don't, we contact them." The department does not announce as a matter of course the names of such bars and restaurants.

About a dozen bar and restaurant employees have tested positive since March, O'Neill said. The department is not aware of a bar or restaurant employee infecting a customer, she said.

Weitekamp says that he regrets staying open for five hours after learning that the employee, who hadn't worked since the big beer garden gathering, had tested positive. He said the employee told him that she tested negative, then the health department contacted her a few days later with the bad news. "I don't know where the screw-up is," he said. "I'm hoping she did not lie to me so that she could work for one night."

Via Facebook, Weitekamp has apologized to customers and offered to give anyone who was tested after visiting his bar a free drink. "I know I made some mistakes in how I handled this whole ordeal and I hope people can forgive me but I did try and do the right thing," Weitekamp wrote.

Ryan Bandy, owner of Win, Lose, or Draught, closed his bar last week after two employees tested positive. He said that he stayed open after the first positive test – the bartender who tested positive hadn't worked in several days. Within two hours, the second positive test results came in, he said, and he announced the results on social media and shut down. He said he expects to stay closed until July 15.

Like Weitekamp, Bandy said that he supports official announcements when employees of bars and restaurants test positive. "I would be fine with that," Bandy said. "We're hoping this is going to be a mild, small situation. The way that you protect things is that you make sure that a small situation doesn't turn into a big situation. The way you make sure a small situation doesn't turn into a big situation is to be honest."

There has been an uptick in positive tests in Sangamon County since bars and restaurants reopened for outdoor service in late May; indoor service began on June 26. Cities where cases are surging, Bandy says, have shown the cost of complacency.

"We've seen what's happened in other towns," he said. "We don't want that to happen here."

One health board member has played down the danger. In May, during the most recent board meeting, board member Jennifer Ludwig, a registered nurse, said that the flu kills more people than coronavirus and that businesses have suffered. "I don't know if it's more or less," O'Neill said in an interview.

O'Neill said she doesn't know how many people in Sangamon County have died from the flu during the past year. She pointed out that health care providers are not required to report flu cases to public health authorities.

National experts have warned that the pandemic is serious. Given trends, an infection rate of 100,000 new U.S. cases each day wouldn't be surprising, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recently told the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He said he didn't know how many people would fall ill or how many people will die.

"I can't make an accurate prediction, but it is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that," Fauci told senators. "Because, when you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they're doing well, they are vulnerable."

Save for picking up fast food, O'Neill said that she hasn't patronized bars or restaurants since pandemic hit. "I don't go very many places," she said. "I wear masks all the time."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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