The day after he announced increased restrictions on bars and restaurants to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Kane and DuPage counties, Gov. J.B. Pritzker doubled down on his heightened mitigation measures.
“In region 8 (Kane and DuPage counties), for example, the number one place — the number one identifiable place that people said when they were contact-traced, that they had been to either just before they got tested or after they got tested but before they got their result, was a bar or a restaurant,” he said last week at a daily COVID-19 news conference. “And that’s true across the state.”
But information made public by health departments in Kane and DuPage counties presents a more vague picture about the exposure locations identified in COVID-19 contact tracing. Local health departments have not made public information about the locations visited by those who tested positive for COVID-19, and business owners and some officials continue to question whether restrictions on restaurants and bars are targeting the right places.
Officials with both health departments say eating and drinking indoors can pose a virus risk, and they encourage residents to follow state rules and take precautions. But a Kane County Health Department spokeswoman said the agency had limited data from county contact tracing about locations, and it would be difficult to make any assumptions. The DuPage County health department did not definitively identify the top locations turning up in contact tracing.
At a news conference Wednesday, Pritzker said private gatherings are a significant source of spread across the country as are restaurants and bars, and he has previously highlighted studies that he said showed restaurants and bars are a “major spreading location for the virus.”
“We’re just trying to educate people as we always have, and then to the extent that we can limit interactions in places where we know there’s spread, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Especially in the midst of a COVID storm.”
Though data specific to Region 8 was unavailable, statewide data from 69 of 97 Illinois counties shows in August and September, the locations people reported visiting most often within 14 days of testing positive for the virus fell into the “other” category, which includes places such as vacations, family gatherings, weddings, college parties and anything that isn’t covered by another listed location. Outside of the catchall category, the location most often reported was restaurants and bars.
The state-mandated mitigation measures include other restrictions, such as tighter caps on gathering sizes, but the provisions banning indoor service drew consternation from some businesses and public officials. The increased restrictions will remain in place until the region’s rate of tests that come back positive is at or below 6.5% for three consecutive days, and the region could be subject to further restrictions if the positivity rate does not fall below 8%. Sunday, the most recent day for which state data was available, the positivity rate for the region covering Kane and DuPage counties was 9.6%.
Some restaurant owners in Aurora questioned whether the provisions banning indoor service were targeting the right types of places. Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico has said he wanted information about how the virus was spreading in DuPage County, and if the data showed virus transmissions were occurring at places other than restaurants then the state’s heightened restrictions were “almost like window dressing.”
In a letter dated Wednesday, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin also questioned the mitigation measures, particularly what he deemed their uneven enforcement.
“It is particularly difficult given the fact that the data which has been released by our local health departments does not support bars and restaurants as significant sources contributing to the spread, yet they are being singled out if, and only if, their establishment resides in a county that is enforcing the measures,” he wrote in the letter. “Moreover, other businesses and settings that the data reflects are contributing to the spread are not subject to the enhanced mitigation measures. This has led to misinformation and opposition to the mitigation measures taken.”
In DuPage County, case investigators and contact tracers collect information about locations visited by people who have tested positive for the virus, but the health department doesn’t yet have the ability to run a report detailing the information, said Chris Hoff, the department’s director of community health resources.
Hoff did not name the top place residents reported visiting before testing positive but said the department has found people reporting they were at restaurants, workplaces and other locations.
The county does identify places to which virus outbreaks have been linked, meaning at least two cases were definitively tied to that location within 14 days. But Hoff cautioned locations linked to outbreaks are not the same as places visited by residents who ultimately test positive.
The county’s public outbreak data includes only a small number of the county’s total cases, and only includes cases where multiple people could be linked to the same location. The outbreak data links 3,135 cases of COVID-19 to locations, while the county has had about 22,600 people contract the virus since the start of the pandemic.
Among those cases that can be linked to outbreaks, 22 cases, comprising five outbreaks, were linked to sit-down dining at a restaurant between the start of the pandemic and Oct. 20, preliminary county data shows. The data does not specify whether the cases were tied to indoor or outdoor dining, and an additional 27 cases comprising eight outbreaks are tied to fast-food restaurants and other or unknown types of restaurants.
The data shows since the start of the pandemic, outbreak-related cases tied to restaurants are fewer than cases tied to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, food production facilities and factories or manufacturers.
Between Oct. 6 and Oct. 20, no outbreaks were tied to any restaurants, preliminary county data shows.
The county cannot always identify definitively where a person contracted the virus, but that doesn’t mean a resident did not contract the virus at that location, Hoff said.
He cautioned the nature of indoor restaurants and bars is risky. They are visited by many people, often not wearing masks as they eat and drink, and residents are likely to linger or visit with others outside their immediate household, he said.
He urged residents to take precautions and follow restrictions, and avoid going out if they don’t have to. It is easier to act now than wait until the virus is out of control, he said.
“People are tired of COVID, tired of restrictions, tired of not seeing people,” he said. “And every indicator we’re watching is going up. So now is not a good time to be ignoring those restrictions.”
In Kane County, where more than 16,500 residents have contracted COVID-19 so far, spokeswoman Susan Stack said it would be difficult to make assumptions about locations identified during contact tracing. An average of about 12% of respondents answered a question about locations during the contact tracing process, meaning the majority of people did not have an answer, she said.
In a statement Friday, Kane County Health Department Executive Director Barbara Jeffers acknowledged the challenges the increased restrictions put on the food and beverage industry and encouraged Kane County residents to support restaurants and bars through takeout, drive-through, delivery and outdoor dining.
She said the department was seeing the virus spread at large and small personal gatherings and cautioned the upcoming holiday season could pose a particular problem if COVID-19 rates do not decrease.
“For the majority of our population, their risk increases based on the number of different people that they come in contact with,” she said. “These restrictions are in place to help reduce the spread of the virus. Social gatherings, including weddings, funerals, potlucks and even birthday parties, are limited to no more than 25 guests.”