Despite a mandate from the state’s governor to close bars and restaurants effective at 9 p.m. Monday, one bar owner in a small Illinois city tried to keep his business running in the face of America’s increasingly deadly coronavirus crisis.
In Clinton, Ill.—population of less than 8,000—Snappers Bar & Grill continued operating late into the night Monday, according to owner Joe Sartie. He said music played from the jukebox as dozens of patrons enjoyed what was likely one of the only bars open in the state of Illinois.
On Sunday, due to the explosion of COVID-19, Gov. J.B. Pritzker had made the decision to shutter every bar and restaurant in the state, effective, he said, until at least March 30.
“This is another hard step to take,” he said in a statement. “I know how difficult this will be on small businesses around the state. But we must do everything we can to safeguard the health of the citizens of Illinois, and that requires this urgent action.”
But Sartie said there was absolutely no way his business could survive a shut down. And at least until Tuesday, he was planning to keep his doors open—not for him, but for his employees, he said. He planned on paying their full wages, including overtime, while not requiring them to come in to work.
Amid a mix of mandated and voluntary shutdowns of virtually every kind of accommodation in recent days, Sartie pitched his approach as economic patriotism at a time when workers of all stripes face lost income. Suffice to say, public officials and health experts were more likely to view it as extreme recklessness that could cost lives.
“I’ll run this place on my own if I have to,” Sartie told The Daily Beast.
He has been brazen about his defiance, openly posting about his decision to remain operating on social media and appearing on an Illinois radio show and in local press. When asked about possible repercussions for his disobedience, Sartie said he was planning for the worst.
“They are going to fucking crucify me,” he said. “I’m going to lose everything.”
But he said remaining open was about more than just staying in business. He believed the reaction from the state has been “completely overblown.”
“I’ve tried to stress to people, this ain’t the end of the world,” he said. “And it’s not going to be over on March 30.”
Sartie said he was surprised that more bar owners hadn’t taken similar stances. He hoped that his decision to remain open could inspire others to do the same.
The governor’s office and state health department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. But David Remmert, a public health administrator with Dewitt County Health Department, told The Daily Beast, “It is not prudent for them to defy an executive order from the governor. The state holds the liquor license and their gaming license and food permit. It becomes a law enforcement issue at that point.”
Remmert added that the department had already been in touch and was ready to get law enforcement involved to ensure that they stay closed if necessary.
Dr. Cricel Molina, an expert on public health and epidemiology at DePaul University in Chicago, said what many Americans might find obvious: Gov. Pritzker’s mandate “is in place to keep people safe.”
“I understand the worry and the concern about his business,” she told The Daily Beast.”I am sympathetic to people who have to make a living. But this pandemic is changing our lives and will be changing our lives for the foreseeable future.”
She added that social distancing can save an untold number of lives. Molina mentioned St. Patrick’s Day weekend, where bars across the state were packed with patrons, despite the warnings from health experts.
“We need to stop this thing in its tracks now,” she said. “If we let people decide what to do, it will compromise the integrity of social distancing and the disease will spread more rapidly.”
On social media, Sartie’s post about staying open received both widespread support and backlash. Many called the decision brave; others admonished him for contributing to a public health crisis.
Sartie said he felt that he was between a rock and hard place. Either shut his doors and go out of business or stay open and risk punitive measures from the state. He said he wished he could ask Gov. Pritzker how he planned to pay for the astronomical lost costs caused by the shutdown.
“I don’t care about myself,” he said. “If I go to jail, go bankrupt, lose my house, fine. But how are my employees going to feed themselves or pay their mortgage?”
When asked how he would feel about his decision to stay open if the death toll from coronavirus exceeded his expectations, Sartie said he hoped he wasn’t wrong.
“If they did everything they could, and it kills two million, I guess I’m a fucking idiot,” he said. “But I’m not a doctor. I’m one guy with a bar. If it kills two million people, then most of what we are talking about won’t matter, there will be nothing left.”
Late Monday, Sartie said he planned to remain open. “I’m just trying to take this terrible and impossible situation one day at a time,” he said.
But by Tuesday morning, he seemed to be running into trouble. Sartie said officials had warned him not to continue operating, explaining in a text message to the Daily Beast: “They verbally suspended me to do any business pending a hearing we r [sic] closing at 2 for good till [sic] people get their heads back on straight.”
And on Tuesday afternoon, a woman named Jenna Sartie—who according to a Facebook page associated with that name handled payroll at the bar—indicated that it would be closing shop.
“We are complying with the law and doing what we have been ordered,” she wrote The Daily Beast.