HIGHLAND PARK, IL — Diners at Highland Park restaurants will need to keep presenting proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 through Valentine's Day after councilmembers voted to extend the emergency authority they granted the mayor last month.
The City Council's 5-2 vote Monday came a day after demonstrators rallied at Port Clinton Square against the city's proof-of-vaccination requirement.
Mayor Nancy Rotering said her order requiring establishments that serve food to ensure that people are vaccinated was temporary and consistent with the mandate in neighboring Cook County. She said vaccination was the best way to eventually end the pandemic, and noted that about 95 percent of Highland Park residents already have at least one dose.
Rotering said the rule, which also requires restaurant workers to either be vaccinated or present weekly negative COVID-19 test results, offers "some peace of mind that somebody is following established principles of public health."
While similar mandates in Illinois have been issued by the health departments of "home rule" cities or counties — Chicago, Cook County, Evanston, Oak Park and Skokie — Highland Park has relied on a local state of emergency and a supplemental order by its mayor.
Rotering, whose order took effect Jan. 7, is campaigning for the Democratic Party's nomination for the Illinois Supreme Court.
"The actions we took to protect our community, we also took to ensure the economic viability of our community," Rotering said ahead of the vote. "This requirement to show proof of vaccination, I have to say, isn't what's taking any type of economic toll — it is the coronavirus."
In last month's initial vote to approve the mandate, only one councilmember, Andres Tapia, voted against granting the additional authority to Rotering. He described implementing the county's only vaccination requirement as "like trying to put a finger in a dike" in terms of its effect on infections.
Tapia said Monday he was not convinced that the effort would help with the goal of getting COVID-19 from epidemic to endemic levels. He pointed to the high number of breakthrough infections with the antibody-evading omicron variant.
"What protects them from the serious illness is their vaccine status, and not the vaccine status of those around them," Tapia said.
He expressed concern that businesses and patrons will have second thoughts about dining in town in the future.
"Further, I worry about the emotional health of our community, and the polarization the vax mandate is causing, that is a detriment to all of us," Tapia added. "This is a time that requires greater social cohesion, rather than division."
Councilmember Annette Lidawer, Tapia's fellow first-term member of the board, stood by her Dec. 29 vote to approve the mandate but said she did not feel there was a sufficient connection between showing vaccination cards at restaurants and reducing coronavirus infections.
Before voting against an extension of the mayor's powers, Lidawer also said she was bothered by the rhetoric around the issue.
"There is no place for this," Lidawer said. "There is a reason that there is a limit on free speech, because name-calling and violating other people's practices is not appropriate."
Councilmembers Tony Blumberg, Michelle Holleman, Adam Stolberg and Kim Stone all voted in favor.
Blumberg noted that he recently had to travel to Niles for a simple medical procedure that should have taken 15 minutes at NorthShore Highland Park Hospital because of the high number of health care workers absent with COVID-19.
"The fact of the matter is, COVID is still causing occupation of hospital beds and an increased number of deaths among unvaccinated people in a disproportionate level to the vaccinated," Blumberg said. "If we can keep unvaccinated people from coming into contact with our population, then this is an appropriate method to do that."
Stolberg said he had recently visited many restaurants in various municipalities, some of which have had a vaccination requirement for patrons and some of which had not — and the vaccination requirement is not what determines which ones are jam-packed with patrons.
"You can ask my wife because she doesn't cook often, there is no bigger supporter of the downtown restaurants than me and my three children and my wife." Stolberg said.
"I was very bothered, while everybody has a right to their freedom of speech, and their opinion, to get some of these emails that said, 'I've frequented these restaurants for 15 or 20 years and because of your mandate we'll never step back in there again,'" he said. "Please don't punish our restaurants for the action we're taking here tonight. We are truly trying to vote our conscience. We are truly trying to do what's right."
Stone said she had not heard much opposition from residents during discussions of the proof-of-vaccination requirement.
"The common themes that I've heard is that they have been able to dine out in Highland Park, because of this requirement, they said that checking vaccine cards has been a non-event at the restaurants, and they believe that we should do what's in the best interests of public health," Stone said.
The councilmember also said she was concerned about recent violent rhetoric.
"This is not rocket science," she added. "This is being done elsewhere. This is something that will help the public health, and I am in favor of continuing."
During Monday's meeting, held over video-teleconferencing software, residents expressed a range of views about the mandate.
Dina Lisner, a local real estate agent, said requiring proof of vaccination to enter a restaurant is no guarantee that people in the restaurant do not have COVID-19. She said the mask mandate made more sense to her.
"I think cancel culture is a very real thing in Highland Park," Lisner said. "I've seen some restaurants speak out or maybe do some things that aren't in line with the mandates, and they get bashed online. I'm embarrassed for the way that some of our residents behave, as you guys were mentioning, and so I do think that there are restaurants and restaurant owners that are not in favor of this, but they're afraid to speak out. They're afraid to say anything because they don't want to be canceled."
Suzanne Wahl, one of the organizers of Sunday's rally with a group called Take Back Our Town, thanked Lidawer and Tapia for voting against the emergency authority. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 250 demonstrators opposing the vaccination mandate and more than 20 pro-vaccination counterprotesters attended Sunday's rally.
"The rest of you: shame on you," Wahl said.
Wahl she had canvassed local restaurants and found empty dining rooms and fearful restaurant owners, afraid of being cited by the city.
According to city officials, about 137 food service establishments were queried about the proof-of-vaccination requirement, and 16 responded with objections.
"We vehemently oppose this government overreach, and I can't believe how tone-deaf you all are," Wahl told councilmembers, before turning the microphone over to her daughter, Lily.
"I'm kind of upset at how my decisions on not putting stuff in my body are really not being respected," the 13-year-old said.
"I really would like to go downtown with my friends a lot of days, and they want to go to awesome places with real yummy food, but I can't, because I'm unvaccinated," she added. "Sometimes I won't like my friends to know if I'm vaccinated or not, because some kids, they don't like unvaccinated people."
More than a dozen people, all of whom were opposed to the mandate, also asked for their written remarks to be read into the record by the city manager.
Andrew Eichner, an attorney and five-decade resident, said he was shocked by some public comments before the vote. He said none of the hundreds of Highland Park residents he knew had any objection to requiring vaccine proof.
"So I don't know who's really objecting to this except for people from outside of Highland Park, and I don't want the vaccine mandate to be lifted so people from outside of Highland Park can come here unvaccinated and sit next to me at a table without a mask," Eichner said. "It just doesn't make any sense."