A New Round of COVID-19 Restrictions Drives Illinois Eateries to Rebellion

Who could have predicted that intolerable rules won’t be tolerated?


With their survival on the line amidst a new round of government restrictions targeted at slowing the spread of COVID-19, many Illinois restaurants and bars are refusing to comply. It's the sort of defiance that erupted during the early days of the pandemic, but more widespread and better organized by business owners who say they have nothing to lose, since their only other option is disaster.

This is a rebellion that could have been foreseen by anybody who understands how people necessarily respond when their backs are against the wall. In fact, it was predicted, repeatedly. That needs to be taken into account by government officials already imposing new lockdowns and poised to inflict yet more pain on a public growing increasingly unwilling to submit.

"Unless the state of Illinois takes a more reasonable approach to mitigation, thousands of restaurants are at risk of permanent closure," the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) warned last week. "To be clear—the IRA is not advising for operators to disobey any state orders while we strongly advocate for necessary changes to the state's mitigation plan."

But restaurateurs don't need advice on how to respond as they grapple with orders that ban indoor dining, restrict outdoor seating, limit operating hours, and implicitly promise doom.

"Stagecoach WILL be open for INDOOR dining/carry out/and delivery until further notice," the Lockport Stagecoach of Lockport, Illinois, notes on its Facebook page. "We have over 30 employees (most of whom live in Lockport with children) that depend on Stagecoach for their livelihoods."

"We are NOT trying to be rebellious or are anti-masks, anti-people's health or any of the other nonsense. This is a decision out of survival," the post adds.

More than 30 bars and restaurants in Winnebago County have been written up for ignoring pandemic restrictions, according to the Chicago Tribune. In Kankakee County, "70 area business owners met Thursday night and agreed to keep serving customers inside their establishments, despite the state's order that some counties stop indoor service to slow the coronavirus," reports Chicago's NBC affiliate.

In response, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker threatens retaliation against the eatery insurgency. "If we need to close down restaurants and bars, or take away their liquor licenses, take away their gaming licenses, we will do that," he huffed during a daily briefing.

That may not be terribly persuasive to businesses that face closure, anyway, if they aren't allowed to serve customers. And why should they sacrifice themselves when Pritzker—among other political figures—has happily exempted himself and his family from inconvenient pandemic rules?

Even if people for some reason trusted Pritzker and the rest of officialdom, another round of lockdowns is exhausting when authorities keep moving the goalposts on how long restrictions are supposed to last—well beyond the 15 days we were promised back in March.

"Shutting down the economy and society for an unspecified period of time can have large economic and psychological costs," note Guglielmo Briscese, Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis, Mirco Tonin for VOXEU, an economics website. "Extending the lockdown after creating the expectation that it would end by a certain date, however, might reduce people's acceptance, trust in public authorities, and ultimately reduce compliance with the rules."

Realistically, those large economic and psychological costs can't continue indefinitely. Eventually, they deplete even the most patient people's savings, attenuate relationships with customers, and erode the ability to endure hardship.

"A more stringent lockdown deepens the recession which implies that poorer parts of society find it harder to subsist," Ricardo Hausmann and Ulrich Schetter find in a working paper for the Center for International Development at Harvard University which looks at less-developed countries but is applicable to any society. "This reduces their compliance with the lockdown, and may cause deprivation of the very poor, giving rise to an excruciating trade-off between saving lives from the pandemic and from deprivation."

As we see, many people, including a large number of restaurant and bar owners in Illinois, are done with suffering government-ordered deprivation as a means of combating the pandemic. And their fears are far from exaggerated.

Yelp reported in September that restriction-related business closures are up across the country, with a majority of those closures permanent. "The restaurant industry continues to be among the most impacted with an increasing number of closures—totaling 32,109 closures as of August 31, with 19,590 of these business closures indicated to be permanent (61%)."

It's not difficult to imagine the desperation of struggling entrepreneurs contemplating a similar fate for their own livelihoods.

And fatigue with seemingly endless impositions is hardly confined to Illinois. Germans, Italians, and Spaniards took to the streets this week to protest against new limits on their lives in the name of public health.

"Protests against a fresh round of coronavirus restrictions hit about a dozen cities in Italy on Monday evening amid a surge in infection numbers across the country and the continent," according to NBC News. "Dozens of demonstrators in Turin in northern Italy threw huge firecrackers and bottles at the regional government's headquarters. Police responded with volleys of tear gas as they tried to restore order in the city."

By contrast, a multitude of eateries serving burgers and beer to paying customers in defiance of intrusive rules seems wonderfully restrained, no matter how much it upsets Pritzker.

As suggested by the Lockport Stagecoach's Facebook post, those businesses aren't just ignoring health risks. The Illinois Restaurant Association calls for "a pragmatic, tiered approach" that allows for indoor dining with reduced capacity. Many of the rebellious restaurant owners give press interviews while wearing face masks and boasting of their hygiene procedures. And, of course, they cater only to customers who voluntarily enter their premises. By all appearances, they're willing to make an effort—but not to be forced into destitution.

Officials might not agree with members of the public on how best to limit the spread of COVID-19. But letting people make their own decisions and voluntarily do business with like-minded others makes a lot more sense than pursuing an unwinnable enforcement campaign against a fed-up population.