After seeing a substantial uptick in complaints related to COVID-19 over the last month, the McHenry County Department of Health will use more than $112,000 of federal CARES Act funding to hire additional staff to educate businesses on safety restrictions and enforce them as needed.
An emergency appropriation of funds was approved in a special meeting of the McHenry County Board of Health earlier this month. The money will be used to handle “the large volume of COVID-19 complaints” filed with the department, Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson said in a statement.
“Additional personnel is needed to handle the large volume of COVID-19 complaints, prevent staff burnout, and ensure we continue providing the best services possible,” Adamson said in the statement last week.
The McHenry County health department received 60 complaints in June about improper safety precautions, 80 in July and reported 93 for the first three weeks of August, a department spokesperson said.
“People are getting a little bit more lax because, well, people are tired of this right? I get it,” McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said in an interview last week. “But it isn’t over, and we’ve got to remain vigilant.”
The funds will be used to hire at least six additional environmental health practitioners and to provide overtime pay and mileage reimbursement to existing employees, Adamson said.
“We have committed to taking the lead on enforcement within the county,” Adamson said in the statement. “There are limitations on what situations we can safely allow our staff to respond to, so there may be instances where local law enforcement is asked to assist us.”
Previously, local law enforcement agencies have expressed hesitation in taking an enforcement role toward businesses that fail to comply with COVID-19 safety regulations, even after the state approved new three-tiered enforcement guidelines in August.
Earlier this month, Franks hosted a meeting with city officials and local police chiefs to “get on the same page” when it comes to how the county should respond to businesses that aren’t enforcing rules around face masks, capacity limits and social distancing.
In the meeting, they reaffirmed that county agencies should take an education-forward approach but that law enforcement should be ready and willing to step up if the health department needs assistance on matters of enforcement, Franks said.
“We hope that won’t be necessary, but we’ve gotten that commitment from our local municipalities,” he said.
The majority of the complaints the health department has received thus far were about food businesses, department spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said.
Of the 70 complaints received between Aug. 7 and Aug. 21, 60 were about food businesses and 64 were about the use, or lack thereof, of face coverings.
Franks warned about the importance of maintaining a balance between bringing businesses into compliance with safety regulations and being “overly punitive” in a time when local restaurateurs and business owners are already struggling.
“With the weather and outdoor dining, a lot of our restaurateurs are going to be out of luck in about a month,” Franks said. “So we’ve got to make sure we have a balance. We have to make sure that our businesses stay afloat … and our goal is to get all our kids back in school if we can.”