Downstate bar owner described in CDC report on spread of coronavirus says he followed the law

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Pool tables in the Embarras bar at Villa Grove, Ill., Tuesday.



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VILLA GROVE, Ill. – The bar is officially named the Embarrassments because it is just a stone’s throw from the Embarras River in central Illinois.

But in this rural community some 160 miles south of Chicago, everyone just calls it “the bar.”

And now, whether locals like it or not, it’s known as the site of a coronavirus ‘super-spread’ event.

On an extremely cold February night, locals lined up for the opening of the bar, one of the few establishments in town where locals gather for fun after a year of COVID-19 lockdown.

Owner Ryan Garrett said of the ’30-40s’ who attended the grand opening, ‘most were just close friends or acquaintances.’

No one was turned down if he refused to wear a mask or social distancing.

“You can’t make them wear masks,” Garrett told The Sun-Times on Tuesday. “You can’t kick customers out because they don’t wear a mask.

“But we encourage it. We have hand sanitizer and masks available, space all of our tables, and we have never been filled to a capacity of 100 since we opened.


Inside the Embarras bar at Villa Grove, Ill., Tuesday.
Andrew Sullender / Chicago Sun-Times

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, these precautions fell short of the mark.

The February 5 event at the bar led to 46 residents contracting COVID-19 and shutting down the city’s school system of more than 650 students 11 days later, according to a CDC report released on Monday.

Among those infected with the spread of the coronavirus at the indoor event with no ‘outside air flow’ there were 26 bosses, three staff and 17 ‘secondary cases’ among those who did not attend at the event.

Five school-aged children, two student athletes and two residents of a long-term care facility – one of whom was hospitalized briefly – were in the latter group.

Four of those infected showed “COVID-19-like symptoms” on the day they attended the event.

The CDC did not name the bar in its report, describing it only as a “rural Illinois bar.”


The Embarrassment Bar at Villa Grove, Ill., Tuesday.
Andrew Sullender / Chicago Sun-Times

Garrett initially denied that his tavern was the one featured in the CDC’s widely publicized report.

“I can assure you that our bar was not responsible for an outbreak of COVID,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Monday evening. “No one who owns or works in this bar has transmitted COVID to anyone. “

But in an interview with The Sun-Times the next day, Garrett first said he “didn’t know if we were the bar” as cited by the CDC and eventually admitted that his company hosted the super event. spreading.

“The CDC said this was a bar that was opening in Villa Grove, and we’re the only bar in Villa Grove that opened in February, so you can make an estimate,” he said, complaining about the CDC report.

Garrett bought the bar last August, but was not allowed to open to the public until that sub-zero February night.


Pool tables at the Embarras Bar in Villa Grove, Ill., Tuesday.
Andrew Sullender / Chicago Sun-Times

The community around the bar has been a hotbed of anti-mask sentiment and local officials aren’t afraid to bypass Governor JB Pritzker’s COVID-19 restrictions.

The town of just over 2,000 is in Douglas County, where Sheriff Joshua Blackwell made headlines across the state last year for refusing to enforce housekeeping orders of Pritzker, which earned him a reprimand from the governor.

“I feel bad for the inhabitants of this county to have someone who does not recognize that it is a global virus and very virulent, that is to say… which will not go away”, Pritzker said at the time.

The Embarras Bar can be found on the banks of the Embarras River in Villa Grove, Ill.


The Embarras Bar can be found on the banks of the Embarras River in Villa Grove, Ill.
Andrew Sullender / Chicago Sun-Times.

Douglas County State’s attorney backed Blackwell, saying she would not pursue any business that would have defied the governor’s orders.

“I think the possibility of criminal prosecution in Douglas County is one of the least worrisome that a business or church has to face in making a decision to reopen, in light of liability issues and threats of dismissals. license adopted by the governor, ”lawyer Kate Watson said last year.

Blackwell and Watson did not immediately respond to the Sun-Times on Tuesday.

Garrett said he “had no opinion” on shutting down Pritzker except to say he “had obeyed the law.”

But he had harsh words for Chicagoans trying to get involved in the affairs of rural Illinois.

“We don’t want Chicago telling us what to do. It may work for them, but not really for us here. They should just leave us alone, ”he said.

A bartender tends to the bar at the Embarras Bar in Villa Grove, Ill., Tuesday.


A bartender tends to the bar at the Embarras Bar in Villa Grove, Ill., Tuesday.
Andrew Sullender / Chicago Sun-Times

Following the event at The Embarras bar, Douglas County’s seven-day coronavirus-positive average fell from 6.3% to 11.2% on February 16, the highest of all counties in the ‘Illinois at the time.

February 16. Villa Grove Schools Supt. Carol Munson sent a letter to parents announcing that their children will not be returning to school for two weeks to contain the spread.

“As of this morning, in-person learning was no longer possible,” Munson wrote.

At least seven school-aged children have contracted COVID-19 from the spread traced at the bar, according to the CDC report.

A parent of a student in the Villa Grove school system spoke to the Sun-Times on the condition that her name not be used because she feared negative reactions in her community for speaking out.

The headquarters of the Villa Grove School District in Villa Grove, Ill.


The headquarters of the Villa Grove School District in Villa Grove, Ill.
Andrew Sullender / Chicago Sun-Times

“The bar released a statement saying it’s none of their business, which everyone knows isn’t true,” she said.

She was happy that schools in Villa Grove had closed for two weeks, saying their handling throughout the pandemic had been “excellent”.

But she complained that her local health department is not following CDC guidelines.

“They don’t check how many people work in companies. There is no mask warrant. When restaurants and bars were supposed to be closed except for pickup, there were still several that were open as if nothing was happening, ”she says. “There is hardly any place where masks are required. It is pathetic. “

Returning to Embarrassments, Garrett said that after the super-spreader event, the Douglas County Health Department “wanted to test people at the gate.”

“And I’m like, ‘This is kinda weird.’ ”

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